Ian McTaggart Cowan

Chapter 9: Newgate BC 1930

“I think that Cowan is the real thing.”

– Dr. Rudolph M. Anderson

Cowan’s excitement is palpable in his application to the National Museum of Canada for a summer job in 1930 as field assistant to the famous “motorcycle naturalist,” collector, writer and artist Hamilton Mack Laing. Laing, known to everyone as Mack, had been collecting for the museum since 1922 and was on contract for an exploration of the mammal fauna along the International Boundary region from the coast to the Rockies. The project was reaching its final stages in 1930 as the museum sorted out the Darwinian problem of isolated populations of small mammals, like Badgers and Pocket Gophers, that inhabited the “islands” of prairie.

Of the references he solicited from his teachers, the best came indirectly from the museum’s chief mammalogist himself, Dr. Rudolph M. Anderson, in a letter to Laing: “I think that Cowan is the real thing.” Cowan’s combination of field skills learned from the “B” and scientific training under the tutelage of his professors made him a suitable candidate for support from Anderson, whose zealous mission to bring scientific rigour to the expanding national museum was legendary. 

Baby flying squirrels

That spring, Laing had been finally coaxed into the ‘B’. Their emphasis on mentoring was a good fit for him, as he had originally trained as a schoolteacher. This talent was evident from the many students, such as Cowan, who remained friends of his. Cowan travelling up to Newgate was blissfully unaware of the correspondence flying back and forth across the country among the ‘B’ that had placed him on the Boundary, in the field and on the job of cataloguing the diversity of the nation’s wildlife. He was later to become the grand master of this landscape, but that summer he was still a young man coming of age with an experienced naturalist–collector to guide him on reading the features of the landscape that shape evolution, whether it is vegetation, aspect, physiographic features or human uses. The two were there to tease out the biodiversity along the border on either sides of the large geographical barrier of the Kootenay River. 

Ian McTaggart Cowan field notes (1930, journal) : Newgate, B.C. (East Kootenays) ; Jasper and Banff, Alberta

Nearly 70 years later, mammalogist David Nagorsen revisited the variation of small mammals like Yellow-pine Chipmunks and Pocket Gophers and confirmed the importance of the Kootenay River as an isolating barrier among subspecies of many small mammals. Having both Cowan’s and Laing’s field notes from that spring provides some insight into the skill of Laing as teacher and the speed at which his disciple learned. In 1946 Cowan would master the distribution of the chipmunks through southern BC, proposing two new subspecies.

Each night, the two men would write up their field journals, skin specimens and transfer data on each to their specimen catalogues. One of the limitations of collecting was the time required in the evening to do the preparation of specimens and recording of data. There was only so much they could do in 24 hours, and the nights were already busy with hunting rabbits to eat, laying traps or watching for the Northern Flying Squirrel—another particularly diverse taxonomy, with their own unique challenges both to catch and identify.

It is not hard to imagine him relating the courtship of flying squirrels to his own situation that summer with Joyce Racey. Although no correspondence from this time still exists, it is likely that some letters passed that summer between himself and Joyce, now an 18-year-old woman. In his journal of 1930, Laing tucks away in a margin a slightly misquoted excerpt from Thoreau’s _Autumn_: “It is only when we forget all our learning that we begin to know….” According to many of his students, Cowan took this to heart as well and insisted his students have bush skills beyond book learning.

In 1998, when he received the Society of Canadian Ornithologists’ most prestigious award, Cowan singled out Laing as one of the four main influences in his life and described that summer with Laing. He was one of the last great amateur naturalists– conservationists of the late 19th century who were ”captivated by diversity” .

Ian McTaggart Cowan with Hamilton Mack Laing (1930)

That summer of 1930, Laing and Cowan would have been crossing the watershed of change in scientific practices with the same frequency as they crossed the Kootenay watershed. Twenty years later, Cowan would embrace the potential of laboratory genetics for determining species when it arrived in his department. He was hiring geneticists like the young David Suzuki in 1963. Cowan was excited about the contribution genetics could make to science, but he always remained a keen advocate for observing the animals in the field as well.

Cowan was indeed loyal to his early mentors and their values but also to the broader interests in wildlife. His great skill in his administrative years was to create a safe and legitimate forum for parties negotiating the shifting roles of the naturalist, the hunter, the scientist, the wildlife manager and the environmentalist within the highly politicized landscape of land use, wildlife and the internal tensions of the preservationists and conservationists. Like the various subspecies of chipmunks he was trapping in Newgate that spring, there were subtle variations of stripes on the different players in the conservation movement. Cowan also never ceased to keep an eye on the greater threat to these small mammals, greater than their own turf wars – their predators. He had no illusions about the greatest threats to biodiversity that come from human industrial development.

In 1972, as part of the US and Canadian implementation of the Columbia River Treaty, the Libby Dam was completed, flooding 145 kilometres of the Kootenay River, wiping out these low-lying grasslands on both sides of the border at Newgate. Some of the ecological communities described by Cowan and Laing are now under several dozen metres of Koocanusa Reservoir water. Twenty years later, in an emergency address to the members of the legislature organized by fish and game clubs, Cowan held little back with regard to the impacts of dams. “Wildlife in British Columbia is your business… The three hazards that confront fish and game in BC are flooding, draining and chemical sprays.” 

Cowan’s memory of this time was so vivid at 90 that if asked, he could reel off the species he collected and dates and places he had visited that spring 70 years earlier, since many of them were firsts – and as it now turns out are lasts – for the province: “We added much new information on mammals of the region. Bird highlights were Williamson’s Sapsucker and Pygmy Nuthatch nesting in open stands of western larch and ponderosa pine; Horned Larks, McCown’s Longspurs and Sharp-tailed Grouse on the extensive grasslands of the Tobacco Plains; I understand all are gone today.”

Ian McTaggart Cowan field notes (1930, journal) : Newgate, B.C. (East Kootenays) ; Jasper and Banff, Alberta
< Chapter 8: Kamloops 1929 Chapter 10: The Rockies 1930 >