Chapter 21

With pathetic frequency our groping hands have left irreparable scars on the beauty we sought to serve.

Peace River 1938

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan

Cygnus buccinators, c. 1930s. Photograph by Cowan. Image Cowan_PH_118 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
Tundra Swan

Tundra Swan

Cygnus columbianus, [possibly Peace River valley, 1938.] Photograph by Cowan. Image Cowan_PH_382 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
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Most of these expeditions headed into the northern Rockies but none lingered in the Peace district. Cowan decided to focus his fieldwork there that season, where “to the best of our knowledge no zoological collecting has been done…” 55 He wanted to check out reports of the fabled spring bird migration through this area, so the plans were to do two months of fieldwork on birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and plants around the Peace region for May and June. The biological inventory of what he called “the climax aspen woodlands” would become the first of the museum’s Occasional Papers.56 This series started by Cowan would run for another 50 years, with 26 papers appearing, before technical publications were eventually abandoned by the museum.

Cowan did not know at the time that there would be little zoological collecting done thereafter. Like Kootenay and Ootsa before, these watersheds were to be the focus of massive energy and resource projects, from hydroelectric dams to natural gas extraction, with plans starting in the late 50s. Construction for the W.A.C. Bennett dam – a result of Premier Bennett’s river policy spat with Ottawa – began in 1961. No environmental impact assessment was ever done for the project. Prior to 2005, ”Cowan’s 1939 monograph was still the best reference on the vertebrates of the Peace River. When we are doing small-mammals work, it is still Cowan's publication that we refer to,” said biologist David Nagorsen.57 An update on birds of the North Peace was done by ornithologist Chris Siddle in 2010 – nearly 70 years after Cowan’s paper.58

The proposed Site C dam has generated new studies to estimate populations for some species, using modern techniques unavailable to Cowan – for example, radar for bird migration, bat detectors, radio-telemetry for ungulates and carnivores etc., but the surveys have focused on specific sites for hydro, coal mines, gas extraction and wind energy projects. Nagorsen notes, ”With staff and budget cuts, government agencies such as the RBCM and the Ministry of Environment have abandoned general biodiversity survey work.”59 Cowan’s report today is an historic benchmark and still remains a vivid record of a vital part of BC’s biodiversity.

Cowan and Pat Martin left Victoria on April 28 in the museum van, travelling in a big counter-clockwise circle through Washington up to Alberta and then north and west again to the Peace country. They drove straight for three days without stopping staying just ahead of an incoming storm: “The locals say it is a record for the distance.”60 Their first stop was Swan Lake on the Alberta–BC boundary just south of Dawson Creek. They made camp at Tupper Creek, which flows into Swan Lake, landscape that appealed to Cowan. “The lake shore is bordered with willows, a few aspen and cottonwood but there is much open country – the hills around are largely covered with aspen but in the lower areas some spruce and Jack [lodgepole] pine occurs. Along the creek, red osier dogwood is abundant.”61

Cowan was well pleased with their choice of a base camp to start their research and wrote an ecstatic letter back to Kermode that night. “We have a perfect campsite on Swan Lake – yes it had 2 swans on it when we arrived – believe it or not – at a point where Tupper Creek enters the lake.”62

55 Report of the Provincial Museum of Natural History for the Year 1938 (Victoria: King’s Printer, 1939), K10.

56 Ian McTaggart Cowan, “The Vertebrate Fauna of the Peace River District of British Columbia,” British Columbia Provincial Museum Occasional Paper No. 1 (1939).

57 David Nagorsen, interview, May 24, 2013.

58 Chris Siddle, “Birds of North Peace River Fort Saint John and Vicinity: Parts 1 and 2,” Wildlife Afield 7, no. 2 (2010): 143–280.

59 Dave Nagorsen, interview, May 24, 2013.

60 Ian McTaggart Cowan, “Field Notes I. McT. Cowan and P.W. Martin Peace River 1938,” May 5–6, 1938, Cowan_FN_053.

61 Cowan, “Field Notes… Peace River 1938,” May 5–6, 1938.

62 Ian McTaggart Cowan to Francis Kermode, May 9, 1938, GR-0111, Box 03, File 04, 1925–1940 Ian McTaggart-Cowan, BCA.

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