Manitoba History: Book Review: Donald G. Wetherell, Wildlife, Land, and People: A Century of Change in Prairie Canada

by Ted Binnema
University of Northern British Columbia

Number 84, Summer 2017

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Donald G. Wetherell, Wildlife, Land, and People: A Century of Change in Prairie Canada. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016, 640 pages. ISBN: 9780773547919, $49.95 (cloth)

This book makes a very welcome contribution to prairie Canadian history. In the author’s own words, it “deals with the relationships people had with wild animals in social, political, and economic terms in everyday life in prairie Canada” (p. xix) from 1870 to the early 1960s. Wetherell argues that during most of the study period most prairie people thought of wild animals as either friends or foes, and that animals (especially the foes) were generally the losers in their relationships with humans, but that by the 1960s most people had accepted the notion that all species had intrinsic value within complex ecosystems. But his account is not that simple. Each chapter of the book emphasizes that prairie Canadians’ relationships with, and perceptions of, wild animals were inconsistent, contradictory, and very complex. In the new but burgeoning field of animal history, Wildlife, Land, and People may be Canada’s foremost example.

Prairie landscapes are among the most thoroughly transformed landscapes on earth; so it is not surprising that Wetherell identifies habitat change as the most important factor in animal population and distribution changes since 1870. The landuse changes, particularly farming, but also ranching, destroyed habitat for some species (including both allies and adversaries), while creating habitat for others (also including allies and adversaries). Obviously, human animal relationships long predate 1870 in this region, but Wetherell begins his story in 1870 because that date represents a crucial turning point. It represents the beginning of very rapid land use change and population growth, and the transformation of wild animals into Crown property. The century covered by this book witnessed very significant changes to human animal relationships in the region. Wetherell ends his study in 1970 because, he argues, the public had accepted most currently dominant ecological principles by that date.

Although Wildlife, Land, and People looks at the way scientists perceived animals, it is not a history of wildlife management. It is primarily a cultural, social, and intellectual history of prairie animals. The book is divided into three parts of uneven length (Parts 1 and 2 comprise less than a quarter of the book). The first part surveys the profound changes in animal distribution by discussing those species that were eradicated or threatened by land use changes, and those that proliferated and expanded their range as a result of them. It also briefly discusses species deliberately introduced to the region. The two chapters of Part 2 discuss the diverse views that prairie residents had about the importance of animal sentience, instinct, intelligence, and behaviour, and the animals as foe or friend dichotomy. Wetherell includes views among Aboriginal people, the public, scientists, and literary figures, acknowledging diversity within these segments of the population, not only between them. He also explores the keeping of wild animals as pets. The themes surveyed in Parts 1 and 2 recur throughout Part 3.

Part 3, the core of this book, consists of ten thematic chapters (chapters 4 to 13). The first explores the evolution from utilitarian attitudes towards game management, to a greater appreciation of habitat protection and the importance of all species in ecosystems. Chapters 5 and 6, which explore the exploitation of wild animals for food and sport, respectively, are followed logically by a chapter that explores the history of “acclimatization”—the introduction of exotic species for food and sport. Chapter 8 considers the relationship between farmers and animals—including the wars on wolves, coyotes, gophers, and others. Those chapters do not present interpretations radically different from those in the broader literature, but they do emphasize the complexity and unevenness of historical patterns more than most scholars have. For example, Wetherell explains that human relationships—even with the most hated species on the prairies—were not monolithic. Even the most reviled creatures of the prairies—crows, magpies, wolves, and coyotes—always had their defenders and champions.

Still, the greatest contributions of these chapters lie in the fact that they provide much information and analysis of the Canadian prairie context. For example, Wetherell nuances our understanding of the roles of science, economics, politics and emotion in the state’s management of wildlife by using a perfect prairie example: the campaign to save the whooping crane. Similarly, although the introduction of exotic species to the Canadian prairies fits a familiar pattern, Wetherell explains the significance of the introduction of the Hungarian partridge, common pheasant, turkey, and largemouth bass to the Canadian prairies. Wars against certain species were common, but Wetherell shows us what is remarkable about the wars against prairie animals. Bounties on certain species are well known, but Wetherell also discusses the significance of the prizes awarded to children and schools that tallied the most dead magpies or gophers. Prairie denizens found many ways to control the coyote populations from “coyote getters,” to traps. Who knows how many prairie boys met their sweethearts at community coyote hunts?

Chapters 9 and 10 examine the history of Aboriginal hunting and fishing rights, and of fur trapping and fur farming. They are followed by a chapter that explores the history of animals in national parks. Each of those chapters makes a valuable contribution, but the last two chapters of this book deserve special mention. Chapter 12 examines the history of animals as subjects of curiosity, study (both professional and amateur), and appreciation. Wetherell assesses the significance of the history of natural history organizations, birdwatching societies, bird counts, and bird sanctuaries. The history of Inglewood Bird Sanctuary (in Calgary) is recounted in particular detail. Chapter 13 likewise considers the significance of the history of the display of animals, whether live animals in zoos, or preserved animals in dioramas and other museum displays. The history of natural history museums is traced from Henry George’s private museum established in Innisfail in 1893, and the Calgary History and Arts Museum, established in 1911, to the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History, the pre-eminent museum on the Canadian prairies in the 1960s. The history of zoos is focused on the history of zoos in Banff, Winnipeg, and Calgary. These chapters, situated in the international literature but based on considerable original research, offer invaluable insight into the history of natural history societies, museums, and zoos on the Canadian prairies. They would serve as excellent models for histories of such institutions in other parts of Canada.

Wildlife, Land, and People is atheoretical. Its arguments are driven primarily by exhaustive research in a wide range of primary sources including archival sources found in no fewer than nine archives, and in many federal and provincial government reports, newspapers and magazines, and scientific journals. Although it is a scholarly book, and although its length may daunt some readers, its readability and its almost 70 illustrations will appeal to members of the curious public. (The photograph of the team of harnessed moose is priceless.) Although the entire book has considerable coherence and unity, each of these chapters can be read (or assigned as course readings) individually.

Wetherell rather modestly positions his book in the same category as George Colpitts’ Game in the Garden (2002), Janet Foster’s Working for Wildlife (1998), and Tina Loo’s States of Nature (2006). In my opinion, it deserves to be mentioned as a pioneering Canadian contribution to animal history. Anyone seeking in the future to research aspects of the cultural, economic, intellectual, and social history of wild animals should consult this valuable work.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 26 November 2020