Chapter 24

Our dilemma may become that of the mole in the mating season – with relatively well-formed immediate objectives but no sure idea of which way to go to achieve them.

Fraser River Valley 1941–1942

Townsend’s Mole

Townsend’s Mole

Scapanus townesendi townsendii, Huntingdon, 1927. Photograph by Hamilton Mack Laing Image J-00304 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum, BC Archives.
Cowan rowing at Alta Lake

Cowan rowing at Alta Lake

c. 1940. Image Cowan_PP_127 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
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For the next 50 years, the only information and breeding populations known for Townsend’s Mole in Canada were the Huntingdon moles documented by Racey and the Cowans.71 During later years, Joyce Cowan was to continue the mole research while Cowan was away in the field. Cowan writes to Joyce in 1944 while away in the Rockies: “Your mole episode sounds most amusing, they are tough beggars to skin even at the best of times so I can imagine your troubles.”72

Unfortunately, there was far more interest in the economic development of the Fraser River Valley and eradication of moles than in the study of their evolutionary history or well-being – even if they were our evolutionary ancestors. It wasn’t until 1995 that other populations of moles were even found – just northwest of the farm. This precipitated the listing of Townsend’s Mole as federally endangered . Being such a specialist species, unlike the widely distributed Coast Mole, this mole is restricted to a particular soil type that occurs in a small area around Huntingdon. The soil is also prime agricultural land, hence the conflict. These somewhat doomed moles earned a place in Cowan’s heart during those years and led to his famous 1955 mole metaphor on the perils of specialization.73

Fittingly, later in this speech, Cowan used another vivid wildlife metaphor, this time of the Sharp-tailed Grouse, to demonstrate a concept that was also close to his heart:

One caution I would make to future planners, authors and editors of our conferences: In the spring, as the prairie chickens [Sharp-tailed Grouse] converge on their booming grounds and the wildlife men follow suit, let us not lose sight of the fundamental point that while noise may be the obvious feature of the booming ground activity, fertility is the most important one…74

Much like the Sharp-tailed Grouse, the specialist small-mammal insectivores have not fared well. Their habitat has been encroached upon by the rapidly expanding suburbs of Vancouver. One of the last technical review committees Cowan served on was for a survey of Burns Bog, which lies on the southern side of the Fraser Valley, not too far from Huntingdon. The biologists, including Cowan’s student Mark Fraker, found Trowbridge’s Shrew (Sorex trowbridgii), Pacific Water-shrew (Sorex bendirii) and Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi occidentalis) in the unique lowland bog75,76


71 Nagorsen, “Oppossums, Shrews and Moles of British Columbia,” 140.

72 Ian McTaggart Cowan to Joyce Cowan, July 4–29, 1944, Cowan_PN_094.

73 Cowan, “The Challenge We Take,” 662.

74 Cowan, “The Challenge We Take,” 663.

75 Richard J. Hebda et al., Burns Bog Ecosystem Review: Synthesis Report for Burns Bog, Fraser River Delta, Southwestern British Columbia, Canada (Victoria: BC Environmental Assessment Office, 2000). https://www.burnsbog.org/bog/wp-content/uploads/Burns-Bog-Ecosystem-Review.pdf (accessed October 31, 2014).

76 Mark Fraker et al., Burns Bog Ecosystem Review: Small Mammals (Victoria: BC Environmental Assessment Office, 1999). http://is.gd/jYFPaA (cached html accessed October 31, 2014).

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