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States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century

By Tina Loo

Review By Billy Parenteau

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 154 Summer 2007  | p. 131-4

The publication of Tina Loo’s States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century marks the coming of age of the field of Canadian environmental history. In some respects, this statement may seem over the top, as Canadian historians, particularly those writing in the political economy tradition, have seen the environment as central to the economic and political development of the nation for almost a century. Although historians outside of Canada have expended considerable effort to define the antecedents and parameters of the field, especially in the United States, Canadian historiography has been all but ignored. Thus, it would perhaps be more appropriate to state that States of Nature is a monograph of major international significance on a topic that is central to current trends in the rapidly expanding field of environ mental history. It is a sweeping, imaginative, and elegantly written study that will change how historians in Canada and beyond understand the formation of wildlife management, the construction of wilderness values, and the human-animal relationship in the twentieth century.

Chapters 1 and 2, on wildlife management to 1945 and the processes of exclusion and colonization that were central features of late nineteenth-century wildlife management, are the least satisfying parts of States of Nature. The first chapter traces the evolution of state wildlife management laws from mediaeval England to the end of the Second World War, focusing on the influence of progressivism and antimodernism. As others have noted, these dual influences produced a regime that favoured recreational over commercial and subsistence hunting. In the second chapter, Loo concentrates on the classand race-based conflicts produced by these exclusionary policies, particularly as they were applied to the rural poor and First Nations. The chapters are wellorganized and well-written. However, these are very large topics, and the space given to them does not allow much room for examining variations and the sometimes significant differences in the dates of implementation of specific regulations between jurisdictions. To cite one example, Loo states that wildlife conservation regulations were “fragmentary and uncoordinated” until the end of the nineteenth century. This may be true for some parts of Canada, but not for the Maritimes and Quebec, where pressure from the sporting fraternity, tourism promoters, and their allies in provincial fish and game commissions produced the essential elements of modern fish and game management in the 1880s. Specialists on other regions of Canada will undoubtedly have some quibbles along these lines. They are strictly minor criticisms. It is clear that the intent of the two chapters is to provide a framework and context for the case studies that follow, all of which are thoroughly satisfying. Indeed, these two chapters are a jumping-off point for a richer and fuller examination of the subject.

The important contribution States of Nature makes to the international literature is that it breaks out of the two paradigms that have dominated the historiography of wildlife conservation and fish and game regulation. The first of these is what might be called the “class, power and the state” model, which emphasizes the elite-centred formation of modern fish and game law and the conflicts that it produced. The second is the “bureaucratic reform” model, in which state agents are either lauded for achieving the ideals of progressive scientific management of game species, as in Janet Foster’s groundbreaking study, or castigated for perpetuating faulty and antiquated principles of conservation, as in the literature on predator eradication. There is some attention paid to these two areas of concern; they are an important part of the story. However, Tina Loo demonstrates with startling clarity that the formation of wildlife conservation was far more complex, involving many more interests and central actors than the various groups of hunters and state administrators. Moreover, she argues convincingly that alternative visions of wildlife and wildlife conservation programs developed outside state bureaucracies had every bit as much influence on shaping public perceptions and public policy with regard to wildlife.

Chapter 3 examines the program of Jack Miner (“Father Goose”), an Ontario farmer who was instrumental in the conservation of migratory birds from around 1910 to his death in 1944, when his son Manly took over his work. Miner’s utilitarian and Christian notions that conservation should flow from humanity’s dominion over nature and his folksy charm resonated with the hundreds of thousands of people who read his writings and attended his frequent lectures. “Dominion” for Miner meant not only the right to mani pulate and consume nature but also the responsibility to safeguard God’s creatures. While he achieved con siderable fame and adulation, his “unscientific” approach and his taxonomy of “good” and “bad” animals (particularly as it related to his slaughter of owls, hawks, and other predators) disturbed government scientists and administrators, who were becoming increasingly informed in their work by the emerging ecosystem theory. It was a clash between local knowledge – built on economic circumstance, life experience, and faith – and scientific training.

While the differences and even hostilities between the Miners and university-trained government experts were never resolved, the gulf between local ecological knowledge and science was much better negotiated by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The HBC, as Loo points out in Chapter 4, had been practising game management for almost a century before it became a science. In the 1920s, the company began sponsoring the population dynamics research of Oxford zoologist Charles Elton, an example of its ongoing commitment to scientific research. Elton shared the HBC’s basic assumption that the local ecological knowledge and methods of Cree trappers were central to efforts to manage and conserve the beaver and other fur-bearing animals. Employing a combination of “local knowledge, paternalism and scientific game management” (108), the company and the Cree carried on a series of beaver conservation projects in northern Ontario and Quebec in the 1930s. The HBC may have been the most active agent in addressing the population crisis of Canada’s national symbol, but the public face of the save-the-beaver campaign was Grey Owl – the English adventurer turned “Indian” – Archibald Belaney. His brand of transcendental philosophy and anti-modern sentiment, expressed in articles, best-selling books, and well-attended lectures, was wildly popular during his brief career from 1930 to his death in 1938. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Depression-era federal relief projects that set up muskrat and beaver preserves. These three central themes in Chapter 4 – corporate resource management, a sentimental attachment to nature, and a more activist state – anticipate some of the central factors in the formation of wildlife conservation policy in postwar Canada.

In the decades after 1945, Loo explains in Chapter 5, the technocratic dreams of the progressive conservation crusade were fulfil led through a more proactive, state-centred, and formal scientific approach to game management and conservation. The federal and provincial governments began to hire personnel trained in the biological sciences in the postwar decade, who linked arms with their university-based colleagues to make wildlife conservation more “rational” and “efficient.” Of particular interest to the bureaucrats was the enhancement of animal populations. A casualty of this process of “modernization,” Loo suggests, was an inattention and sometimes dismissive attitude towards local ecological knowledge.

In Chapter 6, Loo examines state predator policy as a means of demonstrating that principles of scientific conservation, backed by the state regulation and enforcement regimes, did not move forward without being challenged when they offended local sensibilities. The principle example of the contested terrain of game management is a fascinating examination of the debate over paying bounties for species deemed dangerous or a nuisance. Despite near consensus in the scientific community that predators occupied a useful place within ecosystems and that eradication was not a reliable means of maintaining populations of prey species, the bounty persisted in some provinces. The bounty, Loo suggests, was a form of local governance, a subsidy to some rural dwellers and, for a few, a source of social status. Moreover, the notion that predators had little impact on the populations of domestic and game species “did not square with many people’s experiences of seeing half eaten deer carcasses or their perception that game had disappeared” (169). In the early 1960s, scientists and bureaucrats were increasingly aided in their efforts to save predators by a growing number of urban people who adopted a more sentimental view of nature. In Canada, this sentiment was fuelled by such novels as Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1963) and Bill Mason’s popular documentary films in the early 1970s, which imbued predators with admirable human qualities while at the same time extolling their wildness. Arguing for the inalienable rights of wolves to exist was as much a repudiation of scientific management as it was of traditional rural practice. The works of these two men anticipated the sometimes enormous power of urban sentimentality in the modern environmental movement.

Chapter 7 examines the growing emphasis on preserving wild spaces as opposed to conserving specific species of animals. It focuses on the substantial and long-term efforts of Ducks Unlimited Canada (duc) to preserve and rehabilitate wetlands and the campaigns of outfitters Tommy Walker and Andy Russell to save mountain habitats in British Columbia and Alberta, respectively. Duc was in many respects the most successful example of what might be cal led elite sporting utilitarianism, but it also, at times, successfully enlisted farmers and other rural people in its campaigns. Walker and Russell combined commercial interest with a strong sense of place and “way of life” arguments to fight against encroaching development.

States of Nature is a multilayered and complex monograph that combines the methodological and analytical tools of social, cultural, and intellectual history. For all of its sophistication, it is also highly readable because of its clear prose and the obvious attachment that the author has to some of the characters. On the surface, it is not always readily apparent how the large number of people and organizations that pass through its pages fit together. However, Tina Loo brings them together by stepping back and positing that the development of wildlife management and conservation, and all its controversies and contradictions, can be viewed as a function of the values that people placed on the human-animal relationship. It is a powerful argument that allows Loo to define a master narrative of wildlife conservation in twentieth-century Canada. This book is the type of study, both in subjectmatter and in intellectual content, that cracks open a significant field of inquiry and that will not only attract new scholars to the study of a range of issue related to wildlife but also change the ideas of those already writing on the topic. States of Nature will undoubtedly be recognized as a landmark in the field of environmental history.