Scientist, naturally: Ian McTaggart Cowan

– the man who hired David Suzuki

by Briony Penn

Cowan (right) with CBC film crew, filming for his television series The Living Sea, a precursor to the Nature of Things. Photo by UBC Dept. of Extension, 1955
Cowan (right) with CBC film crew, filming for his television series The Living Sea, a precursor to the Nature of Things. Photo by UBC Dept. of Extension, 1955

Ian McTaggart Cowan (1910-2010) revolutionized the way North Americans understood the natural world. Known as the “father of Canadian ecology,” he was no stranger to the suppression of scientists or to challenging pipelines, hydro projects, pesticides and industrial logging – all before most of us were even born. He pioneered nature television in its very earliest days and later hired David Suzuki who went on to narrate the Nature of Things. From his formative years roaming the mountains around Vancouver looking for venison to his last years co-editing the voluminous and authoritative Birds of British Columbia, Cowan’s life provides a unique perspective on a century of environmental change – with a critical message for the future.

Book launches
The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan by Briony Penn
Nov 3 Saltspring Island, Artspring
Nov 7 Vancouver, Beaty Biodiversity Museum, UBC
Nov 18 Victoria, Royal BC Museum
Other launches:
UVic digital collection of journals

In the opening pages of his 1956 handbook The Mammals of British Columbia, Ian McTaggart Cowan encouraged us – his readers – to join him in “unravelling the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals.” The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan is a continuing invitation to reveal not only the innermost secrets of the lives of animals, but of the man himself and the lives of his gentle, paradoxical and radical cohort of naturalists who influenced British Columbia in more ways than I ever imagined before starting this project…

When he started at UBC in 1940, not one province in Canada had a core biological staff for wildlife management. By the mid-50s, two-thirds of the provinces had wildlife biologists and most of them were Cowan’s graduates. Demands for his time as a popular lecturer were also exploding. Soon after returning from Scotland, he reported first to his base – the men on the ground in the wildlife profession – on his findings from Europe. His lecture outlined the limitations of privatized models that relied exclusively on the farming of game animals and eliminated natural ecosystems. He pointed out that legislators had failed to protect wild birds flying between countries. As he observed about a troubled post-war Europe, “They cannot get together on anything else, so you would hardly expect them to get together on waterfowl.”

In an address to the same group in 1955, he warned of the impacts of hydrocarbons, DDT amongst them. Like Spencer and Buckell’s warnings 10 years earlier, Cowan told his audience that these chemicals are as “capable of profoundly altering the environment more rapidly, thoroughly and insidiously than ever before,” and that the corporations or “rival chemical concerns [are] so strong that demand can be created before sufficient time has been allowed for proper appraisal.” In a more personal plea to North American scientists, including the ‘B’, he had this to say during the winter solstice of 1955, when he was made head of the Wildlife Society:

“To gain support for our cause, we have emphasized the economic values it represents and have soft-pedalled the great intangible forces of recreating the human soul, because we have not known how to talk about them in words of mutual understanding. We have stood tongue-tied in the presence of the dollar.”

Cowan saw the “presence of the dollar” gathering on all fronts, especially in the rapidly urbanizing Fraser delta… In many cases, the fauna of the localities Cowan worked in have indeed vanished and his journals are poignant reminders of what we have destroyed. The field journals of the Okanagan grasslands describe the quiet diggings of badgers under a full moon journals describing the Ootsa, the Kootenay and the Peace River valleys are ghost landscapes. Much of it now lies underwater from hydro-electric projects. Field notes from the Mackenzie delta or the forests of Vancouver Island tell us what was there before dams, highways, pipelines, logging and mining carved up the landscape. The journal of the fauna of Point Grey or Richmond points to a Vancouver that is almost unrecognizable. The journals also give us some sense of what could be restored should we have the inclination. In some cases, like the islands off the central coast, we have a benchmark that hasn’t changed so drastically, accentuating the importance of these last intact ecosystems, allowing us to celebrate the restoration of populations like the Humpback Whales…

Because Cowan had seen more flora and fauna around British Columbia than virtually any human being could have before or will again, his stock of stories was almost inexhaustible. He also witnessed the impacts of overhunting, pollution, pesticides, logging, dam construction, oil and gas development and climate change that pointed to an increasingly impoverished future.

Not surprisingly, he was always one of the first – if not the first – to raise the alarm. As Canadians, we haven’t done a good job of crediting our scientists as leaders, prophets or innovators of ideas, As one interviewee noted, if Cowan had been born in the United States, he would have been a household name.

Excerpted from The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan by Briony Penn, Rocky Mountain Books, Now in bookstores.

Private Lessons

cowan with binoculars
photo by Debra Brash, Times Colonist

Cowan left the files containing the privately published Lessons and correspondence [of a secret society] as part of his personal collection, appropriately labelled ‘B.’ The ‘B’s network was widespread and they built upon already existing societies, fraternities, professional associations and friendships around North America to extend and strengthen their influence. Cowan landed right into their circle from his teenage years onwards. For an impressionable and expansive young mind, gaining entry to this cohort at a formative time was critical in every way.

The experiences of the ‘B’ guided Cowan through his own life. Attacks on scientists had come from highly influential corporate interests for a century and were to continue for the rest of his life. His response would echo his mentors: work quietly through networks. In 1984, he was still active in challenging a round of serious budget cuts to the Canadian Wildlife Service. In a letter to a colleague, he writes, “I understand that the assistant deputy minister is the man responsible. His background is agriculture and he looks upon wildlife as a nuisance value at best.”

That same year, his student and close friend Bristol Foster made a big splash on the front page of the provincial capital newspaper when he resigned his post as director of the Ecological Reserves Unit after a decade. The headline read, “B.C.-muzzled Expert Quits Ecology Post.” A change in government to conservative interests had brought a sea change to the unit, and Foster, a mammalogist and PhD student of Cowan’s, wrote, “We’re told no more public speaking… no more proselytizing – that’s the word they’re using – no more promoting ecological reserves… But they really want bureaucrats – grey, clawless, pussycats – who just do quietly what they’re told…”

In a 2001 interview, Cowan detected another cycle of suppression of scientists: “At the moment, we are going through a swing and I don’t see where that swing is going to end, because the boundary is getting farther and farther to the ultraconservative. Those are the sort of people who will say, ‘What value is a grizzly anyway?’ If you ask that question, you are certainly labelling yourself as totally without knowledge of the world in which you live.”

Cowan was responding this time to a wave of new attacks sparked by material such as Off Limits: How Radical Environmentalists Are Stealing Canada’s National Parks, which had just been published by the right-wing “think tank” Fraser Institute. In it, the authors attacked Leopold, Muir and contemporary colleagues of Cowan like his friend Monty Hummel. The Fraser Institute was using language almost identical to that used by their forebears from the previous century: “…some of these eccentric opinions, which may or may not be held by individual environmentalists, do not provide a sound foundation for the development and implementation of sensible public policy concerning Canada’s national parks. We will see that efforts to formulate a coherent parks policy on the basis of a kind of mystic ecocentrism introduces several additional and unnecessary constraints.”

The “unnecessary constraints” were any species, ecosystem or culture that may stand in the way of resource extraction. The exposure of any kind of emotional connection to the natural world was and continues to be the first line of attack by those interested in removing the obstacles to resources. The attacks on credibility were only too well known by traditional subsistence hunters as well. The desire by the ‘B’ to protect subsistence economies laid the groundwork for upholding constitutional rights of indigenous people to hunt. In his work in the Mackenzie Delta in 1947, and in his subsequent projects in the North as oil and gas began impacting hunter lifestyles, Cowan would be a strong advocate along with his colleague Justice Thomas Berger.

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