Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 8: Kamloops 1929

“The things you see on your first exposure are going to be the most vivid, probably the most detailed.”

– Ian McTaggart Cowan

At the end of Cowan’s second year, in April of 1929, his professor George Spencer, through his friendship with entomologist Ronald Buckell at the Dominion Entomological Branch, got Cowan a job collecting small mammals for Rocky Mountain tick research in Kamloops. Sitting at the confluence of the North and South Thompson rivers, Kamloops is in the heart of the interior grasslands where the rain shadow effects of the mountain ranges create arid open savannahs of bunchgrass. These grasslands are well-loved by browsing ungulates, burrowing small mammals and their once ample predators. Grazing pressures in some areas had converted the rich bunchgrass communities into dusty needle grass and tumbleweed patches, so erosion and grazing patterns were one area of concern. Ticks and grasshopper plagues were another. The Department of Agriculture had appointed Buckell to investigate the myriad issues concerning grasslands and insects. Buckell, like his colleague Spencer, was a naturalist and Cowan was much taken with him.

Landscape of Harper Ranch (1929)

Buckell, a Cambridge University scholar, had emigrated to BC in 1911 after finishing his degree in entomology. As a measure of the man, his contributions to BC’s ecological health was as an early advocate against DDT in the mid-40s, not long after this synthetic pesticide had been introduced – and decades before Rachel Carson drew national attention to the issue in the US with her book Silent Spring in 1962. His shyness prevented him from speaking publicly, so he would accompany Spencer to lectures in rural communities around British Columbia, warning against the dangers of DDT on the chief pollinators, the bees. At a Farmers Institute meeting in the Cariboo during the spring of 1946, Spencer, “delegated to do the talking” on behalf of the two men, stressed the beneficial uses of the vast majority of the two and a half million insects and “the menace of DDT.” 

White-footed mouse nursing young

That summer of 1929, Buckell introduced the young Cowan to grassland ecology. For his part, Buckell was happy to leave his skilled young assistant, vetted by his colleagues, to get on with the task of quantifying the highest-risk candidates for small-mammal vectors that the ticks used before jumping onto the cattle. The Rocky Mountain woodtick would have proved a really interesting challenge for any mammalogist of the time. To do his research he had to trap the animals and extract the ticks. In the course of his Kamloops research, he trapped most of the grassland rodents and prepared specimens from them. This was his first introduction to those species close at hand, and with the aid of these pioneer entomologists, the exercise gave him a classic introduction to grassland ecology.

Cowan started the job and his first journal entries on May 23 at Peterson Creek, which flows north through Kamloops into the Thompson. Temperatures were already reaching 96°F in the treeless grasslands, but Cowan scarcely paused. In his first 24 hours, he caught two dozen Yellow-bellied Marmots (commonly called “groundhogs” in those days).

Yellow-bellied marmot

He worked from May until September, and while he was doing his tick research he also put together, at the behest of Racey, a guide to the mammals of Kamloops. His unpublished manuscript of that name had a list of the 28 species he saw or trapped that summer. From the large marmots and weasels to the tiny Wandering Shrew, you can see the diversity in pelts, coloration, length of tails, whiskers, claws and body shape, all adapted to different niches of the prairie – all of which Cowan explored. For example, on June 4 he scrambled up 1,800 feet above Rayleigh on the north side of the Thompson to the sage flats and bunchgrass meadows, where he observes a subspecies of the Northwestern Chipmunk [Yellow-pine Chipmunk] descending 500 feet down a cliff to get water from a stream. The chipmunk got away but he was to spend considerable time over the years sorting out the large variation in chipmunks at the species and subspecies level. 

In his species descriptions for “Mammals of Kamloops,” which was an early prototype for his _Mammals of BC_ book 20 years later, he recorded another strange behaviour of a visiting male shrew. Cowan was to have an unerring eye for the wandering young of all species, especially male, in unfamiliar territory. He came across a male shrew that gave him considerable difficulty in identifying it. It was a subspecies of the appropriately named Wandering Shrew a long way from his usual habitat of coastal swamp. Shrews are highly adaptable, as Cowan discovered with his wandering male. One or more of the 12 native species occupy every inch of the province. Cowan was intrigued by the puzzle of the shrews and went on to develop taxonomies and map distributions of shrew species all through the province, including the most remote islands off the coast, with several subspecies named after him.

Ian McTaggart Cowan field notes (1929) : notes on mammalian ecology

During that summer of 1932, in addition to his job of documenting the ticks and their vectors, Cowan also found time to collect various spring migrant birds like the Townsend’s Solitaire, a gray, long-tailed bird of the western mountains that descends to lower elevations to feed. In his later years, Cowan would remark about the vividness of his first work experiences in the field and the impressions those summer explorations into new territory left with him: “the impressions you come back with from the first time in a new area are the most brilliant and they stay with you longer.” 

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