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Resettling the Range: Animals, Ecologies and Human Communities in British Columbia.

By John Thistle

Review By Max Foran

June 25, 2015

BC Studies no. 189 Spring 2016  | p. 178-79

This is a thought-provoking book. Focussing on the rangelands of Interior British Columbia, John Thistle describes how commercial ranching begot inequities, dispossessions, and ecological degradation. All, according to his analysis, were avoidable.

Resettling the Range is clearly written and argued convincingly from archival sources and relevant secondary material. In addition to the researched narrative, this book is enhanced by an insightful foreword by renowned environmental historian, Graeme Wynn, and by Thistle’s own excellent conclusion that reaches beyond his central historical argument.

Thistle takes a unique approach, setting his narrative within two broad non-human signifiers. Wild horses and grasshoppers were synergies for human conflicts to emerge and develop. In reacting to these two biological threats, ranchers and government sought immediate rather than longer-range solutions. In these decisions, the wishes of the dominant group prevailed. Those without voice or economic resources were disadvantaged as were the grasslands environments upon which they all depended.

The wild horses that grazed freely on the bunchgrass that belonged to no one were situated firmly in Native culture and daily life. However, in the eyes of ranchers with paid-up grazing rights, they were worthless marauders in competition with their cattle for pasture and prime candidates for extermination. Thistle argues that this eradication of wild horses was carried out without consideration to the indigenous people who depended on them. Dispossessed by government policies that allowed a few individuals and corporate interests to control leases containing the best grazing land, Natives were left with small parcels of inferior waterless land unsuitable for commercial ranching, and their ranching prospects were diminished further by the confined presence of their horses on their meagre reserves. Thistle shows how government officials heeded those who could pay for grazing rights while ignoring the pleas of Native ranchers and undermining their willingness to compete. Had they been given half a chance they might have kept a foothold on their traditional ranges.

Thistle’s focus on grasshopper irruptions enables a fascinating discussion. The fact that the irruptions are little understood, that they might have been overestimated in terms of damage caused, and that in a natural environment they might actually have been ecologically beneficial, will come as a surprise to many. Thistle refers to the uneven impact of grasshopper irruptions. Since the state of the range and economic status were determining factors, Natives were the most severely impacted, followed by the smaller ranchers. The big operators with more grass and surplus hay were the least affected. Some even profited by buying out ruined ranchers or selling their surplus hay. Thistle discusses the irruptions’ link to overgrazing and notes that range restoration was never considered as a solution. Instead, lethal poison programmes were implemented and, in fact, mandated since opponents had no choice but to participate.

The land was the main casualty in these discourses. Haphazard land-use practices resulted in long-term overgrazing and ecological degradation. Lethal poisons indiscriminately destroyed much more than grasshopper eggs. Thistle underscores the complexity of range management and its scientific applications. He also discusses the place of fire in the ecological paradigm. The difficulties faced by smaller livestock operations in a semi-arid climate more suitable to large units employing economies of scale, though not a central argument, comes through in the narrative. Additionally, in Thistle’s telling, Native ranchers virtually lost a way of life as well as their occupation and stewardship of the land.

Given the number and type of non-human creatures that inhabited the grasslands pre-empted by ranching, I was surprised that Thistle did not give them more attention. Wild horses and grasshoppers might have made his main argument, but they did not do justice to the ecology of a land transformed by ranching. Also in my opinion, the book’s wide range and frequent mention of individual ranches called for chapter summaries and detailed explanatory maps.

Thistle is to be commended for bringing this BC example to our attention in Resettling the Range. I thoroughly enjoyed this book with its penetrating insights into the capitalist view of the land as commodity. Sadly, Thistle’s lesson about the human readiness to use lethal options to combat non-human threats has far too many parallels elsewhere. 

Resettling the Range: Animals, Ecologies and Human Communities in British Columbia.
John Thistle
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015. Nature | History | Society Series. 244 pp. $95.00 cloth