Wildlife, Land, and Peo­ple: A Cen­tury of Change in Prairie Canada

Canada's History - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Nelle Oos­terom, the se­nior ed­i­tor of Canada’s His­tory mag­a­zine and a nat­u­ral his­tory en­thu­si­ast.

Ap­pro­pri­ately enough, I hap­pened to read a good part of this book while va­ca­tion­ing near Grass­lands Na­tional Park in south­ern Saskatchewan. A small rem­nant of what was once a vast prairie stretch­ing over three prov­inces, Grass­lands has been pre­served as a niche where wildlife that once faced ex­tinc­tion — pronghorn, black-footed fer­ret, black-tailed prairie dog, golden ea­gle, and, of course, bi­son — now roam freely.

That said, and even with my in­ter­est in nat­u­ral his­tory, I didn’t ex­pect to find this five-hun­dred-plus-page tome all that en­gag­ing, given the dry ti­tle. And it is, by na­ture, so to speak, aca­demic. Yet I found my­self drawn in to Don­ald G. Wetherell’s ac­ces­si­ble, some­times-pas­sion­ate, al­ways mea­sured writ­ing style. Com­ment­ing on the im­pact of set­tle­ment of the prairies, he writes, “The de­cline and near ex­tin­guish­ment of some species was ex­tra­or­di­nary and forms a crit­i­cal as­pect of the re­gion’s his­tory. In­deed, for some, the en­vi­ron­men­tal his­tory of the Cana­dian prairies is largely the story of a bloody war­fare waged on species af­ter species.”

As the au­thor, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of her­itage re­source man­age­ment at Athabasca Univer­sity, points out, the changes on the prairies that took place af­ter Con­fed­er­a­tion in­volved a lot of com­ing as well as go­ing. While na­tive species de­clined, new­com­ers came in. Some have been here so long that most peo­ple likely don’t re­al­ize they are not na­tive to the prairies. by Don­ald G. Wetherell McGill-Queen’s Univer­sity Press, 637 pages, $49.95

Sur­pris­ingly, to me, the hum­ble earth­worm was among the new ar­rivals. Whether it landed by ac­ci­dent or de­sign, no one knows, but the fact is that there were no earth­worms on the prairies un­til the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury. Mule deer de­clined, but white­tail deer ap­par­ently found the new farm­ing en­vi­ron­ment hos­pitable and were first spot­ted in Man­i­toba in 1881. They are now wide­spread. Same with jackrab­bits (1880s) and cot­ton­tails (1930s).

Some na­tive species be­came more nu­mer­ous when other species died off. Wolves largely dis­ap­peared, thanks to boun­ties placed on their heads, but foxes and coy­otes thrived with the abun­dance of mice that mul­ti­plied in the straw that was left in grain fields. Robins also liked liv­ing on farm­land and be­came abun­dant. Crows and mag­pies dis­ap­peared with the bi­son but re­turned when the land was set­tled. And it was set­tled quickly. About a mil­lion peo­ple, mostly Euro­peans, ar­rived on the prairies be­tween 1901 and 1910. As Wetherell notes, “Break­ing the land for cul­ti­va­tion was lit­er­ally the break­ing of one nat­u­ral world and its re­place­ment with an­other.”

This wide-rang­ing book delves deeply into the va­ri­ety of at­ti­tudes peo­ple held to­wards wildlife. For in­stance, a study of the Rock Cree of north­ern Man­i­toba in the 1970s sug­gested that In­dige­nous be­liefs about an­i­mals were not nec­es­sar­ily uni­form. Some be­lieved an­i­mals that were killed by hun­ters went to their deaths will-

in­gly; oth­ers be­lieved that they had to be tricked into giv­ing their lives. And some be­lieved that killing en­sured re­gen­er­a­tion, which made it dif­fi­cult to con­vince some Rock Cree hun­ters of the need to stop killing an­i­mals when they be­came scarce.

The at­ti­tudes of set­tlers are well­known. Wild an­i­mals were gen­er­ally “friend or foe.” But who was a friend and who was a foe changed over time and cir- cum­stances. And the mea­sures used to kill off the en­emy were some­times ex­treme, such as strych­nine bait for wolves or dy­na­mite bombs for crows.

Even chil­dren were en­listed to kill. Go­pher hunt­ing be­came en­trenched as a prairie child­hood tra­di­tion — a bounty of a half a penny per go­pher tail went a long way dur­ing the De­pres­sion. From the 1920s to the late 1940s, school trips were or­ga­nized in spring to hunt for the eggs of crows and mag­pies. Any un­for­tu­nate fledglings the chil­dren en­coun­tered had their legs torn off so that they could be turned in for prizes or cash. Not ev­ery­one went along with it. At least one farm news­pa­per, the Western Pro­ducer, ar­gued in 1928 that such be­hav­iour should not be en­cour­aged be­cause it per­verted “a child’s im­pulses to be kind to all liv­ing crea­tures.”

As Wetherell notes, it took some time for farm­ers to re­al­ize that many an­i­mals did more good than harm and that it was worth sac­ri­fic­ing a few chick­ens or some grain in re­turn for the con­trol of mice and in­sects.

Wildlife, Land, and Peo­ple cov­ers a lot of ground and goes into great de­tail on many top­ics, in­clud­ing hunt­ing, con­ser­va­tion, govern­ment reg­u­la­tion, and so on. Among the themes that stand out is at­ti­tude. Hu­man at­ti­tudes to­wards wildlife gen­er­ally range from benev­o­lent, to hos­tile, to in­dif­fer­ent. The au­thor does a good job of ex­plor­ing the myr­iad per­spec­tives peo­ple have held — and still hold — and how th­ese be­liefs im­pact the nat­u­ral world.

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