Ian McTaggart Cowan is “The Real Thing”
By Rod Silver, past Director of The Nature Trust of BC
When two MPs, a scientist and a school principal were walking in Kamloops one afternoon in 1971, the conversation turned to the wise investment of the unused portion of Canada’s second century centennial gift to the Province of BC. The balance was $4.5 million.
That discussion led to the eventual establishment of The Nature Trust of BC and the creation of an endowment in trust that exists to this day.
Ralph Shaw, the school principal, recalls a “…discussion on the importance of using the funds in a way that would be scientifically sound and at the same time using good business practises in spending and securing suitable (ecologically significant) sites. There was to be a Board of Directors appointed from recognized conservation-minded scientists and equally dedicated conservation-minded business people.”
Alastair McLean, with impeccable credentials as a range specialist, provided a solid plant science research presence on the founding Board of Directors. Dr. Ian McTaggart Cowan, widely recognized as the father of wildlife conservation in Canada, was soon appointed as a Director. He added wildlife expertise to greatly expand the science-based credibility of the new organization. He would serve as a Director for over 30 years.
Ian, it seems, was an integral part of many organizations. As well, his insatiable thirst for knowledge about the natural world took him to every corner of the province.
His biography, The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, by Briony Penn will be published by Rocky Mountain Books in November. Penn writes: “Cowan wanted his biography to be a shameless showcase for the natural history of BC. The book follows his formative years as he painstakingly recorded in his journals what lived in the regions of the province, the Rockies and the north.”
Though Ian was well known in conservation circles, by the time I arrived at UBC in 1968 he had moved from teaching and was Dean of Graduate Studies. Everyone in earth sciences knew who he was and his legendary reputation as a zoology lecturer. And, we were rarely without the wildlifers’ bible- a copy of The Mammals of British Columbia by Cowan and Guiget.
As Penn notes: “In the opening pages of his 1956 field guide The Mammals of British Columbia, Ian McTaggart Cowan encouraged his readers to join him in ‘unraveling the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals.’ His biography is a continuing invitation to explore not only the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals, but of the man himself who with his gentle, paradoxical and radical cohort of naturalist/scientists had an extraordinary influence on the conservation of wildlife in North America.
He engaged people through an infectious enthusiasm for the natural world and accessible, robust science, whether it was writing field guides, broadcasting the first nature television shows or packing community halls with his talks.”
In 1971, my Master’s degree supervisor, Dr. Bert Brink (also a long-serving, respected Director of The Nature Trust of BC) thought it best to add zoology-related directed studies to my list of courses and sent me off to Ian’s office. For 8 months, I had the marvelous experience of regular one-on-one sessions with Ian. We covered a wide range of conservation topics and I learned great respect for him.
Ten years later, a rookie BC cabinet minister, Stephen Rogers, wisely appointed Ian as the first Chair of the Board of the Habitat Conservation Fund (now Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation) and I was the government staff person assigned to help establish and administer the new fund. I had the privilege of working with Ian for over 12 years of his 19-year tenure as volunteer Chair of the Fund. We became good friends.
Ian brought instant credibility to the new fund. He was instrumental to its success.
“He had long recognized the importance of a strong organizational infrastructure whether it was universities or non-profits that provided a platform and a political voice to rural and urban people for the protection of wildlife, subsistence lifestyles or just the sanctuary of nature.”
Ian was a special mentor to me. He went out of his way to make anyone comfortable with his impressive knowledge. He was a patient, considerate educator who engaged people personally with enthusiasm for the natural world. I think it was important to write the biography to let the world know of his remarkable contributions to science and education. In his words: “All my life I have tried to explain to colleagues, family, students – anyone who will listen to me – the beautiful, fascinating things that I see!”