Chapter 29

The function of the university is to help our students… It has been a marvellous place for them. I think Dr. Cowan will agree with me on that.

Chilcotin and the Ashnola 1948–1952

Ashnola Camp, 1928.

Ashnola Camp, 1928.

Photograph by Hamilton Mack Laing. Image J-00268 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.
Cowan with Bighorn Sheep skull

Cowan with Bighorn Sheep skull

c. 1960s. Photograph by Robert Ragsdale. Image Cowan_PP_039 courtesy of CBC Still Photo Collection/Robert Ragsdale.
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After 1949 he was looking for close to home research opportunities to bring his family, as well as his students, into the field. One such chance presented itself with the Ashnola Mountains, a 36,000-acre grassland region south of Keremeos. The Ashnola River is a tributary of the Similkameen which, after rising in Washington state and crossing the US border, flows west to east through the mountains that divide the coast from the interior. The unique area, less than a day’s drive from Vancouver, provided the perfect wildlife field school at which Joyce and the children could join him. It was also perfect for his colleague Bert Brink and his students learning about grassland ecology. Ashnola is unique for many reasons: it is one of the few areas of the province where grasslands are more or less continuous from the valley floor to the alpine; it was a refugium during the last glaciation; but most importantly for Cowan, it was North America’s last stronghold – then – of what was known as the California Bighorn, a population on the verge of extinction.

The Ashnola episode of the Klahanie television series was shot in 1971, and the cameraman was Rick Maynard, who was also another student looking at the link between grasshopper epidemics and overgrazing. This was an observation that Ron Buckell had made doing experiments with exclosures back at Kamloops in the 1920s. As Cowan explained, “Good quality range is not damaged by grasshoppers; they are a secondary user. They come in when the range has been mishandled by us.” …88

The other great threat to the sheep and the region was the emergence of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. At the close of the 1971 TV episode, Cowan gives an impassioned plea about the threats of motorized vehicles in the precious winter range of the herd: 2 per cent of the country holding 90 per cent of the game. “If you start getting mechanical devices into this area, then they’ll crawl up into a corner and die.”89 The two of them talked about the value of the protected areas for recreation and conservation, and then Brink finished with this closing thought: “One of the biggest dividends is the impact on our students. The function of the university is to help our students… It has been a marvellous place for them. I think Dr. Cowan will agree with me on that.”90

88 Cowan, “Ashnola,” Klahanie series television episode, aired 1973.

89 Cowan, “Ashnola.”

90 Cowan, “Ashnola.”

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