Review of Thistle, Resettling the Range

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John Thistle, Resettling the Range: Animals, Ecologies, and Human Communities in Early British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015. 244 pp, ISBN: 9780774828383.

Reviewed by Mica Jorgenson.

Like many commuters travelling between metropolitan Vancouver and British Columbia’s northern resource communities, I have often overlooked the drylands of the provincial interior. John Thistle’s Resettling the Range: Animals, Ecologies, and Human Communities in British Columbia brings new meaning to this landscape of sage-brush, small towns, and split-rail fencing. Thistle explores how social and environmental problems grow up in the fertile gaps between human expectations and the physical environment. Taking horses and grasshoppers as twin points of analysis, Thistle weaves BC’s interior drylands into successively larger socio-ecological webs to show how human and natural communities are fundamentally interconnected.

Thistle’s central argument is that rational range improvement exacerbated inequality between people because dispossession and marginalisation are social and ecological conditions (10). Those who settled and regulated British Columbia’s interior at the turn of the century recruited established understandings of agriculture east of the Rockies, the ethic of improvement, and scientific management to understand BC’s interior drylands. As they worked to manage and develop range in the service of their ideals, they faced complications, including First Nations use, tensions between smallholders and large ranches, and unexpected ecological processes – particularly the depletion of pasture. In the face of such complications, and in search of easy solutions, regulators made horses and grasshoppers into scapegoats.

Resettling the Range is organized thematically into two parts. Each part has three chapters. Chronologically, the story of horses (Part I) and the story of grasshoppers (Part II) exist parallel in time. Thus, Part I starts with the arrival of horses in BC in the seventeenth century, describes how they became pests after 1900, details extermination efforts and associated socio-ecological consequences, and ends with their eventual conservation in the mid-twentieth century. Part II begins with pre-ranching insect irruptions, moves through government poisoning programs as a control in the 1930s and 1940s, and ends with a discussion of range allocation politics in the face of persisting and worsening outbreaks into the 1960s.

Several strong thematic threads bind the parallel case studies into a cohesive narrative. Many of the major characters are the same throughout. Provincial Grazing Commissioner Thomas MacKenzie appears as a major character in both the horse and the grasshopper parts. Prominent ranchers and First Nations also appear in both parts (although First Nations appear less often in Thistle’s grasshopper story). Non-human characters also function to tie this book together. In particular, the narrative circles constantly around grass and cattle. Winter range (or more accurately the lack of it) was the largest single obstacle standing in the way of settler desires to turn BC’s dry interior into economically functional cattle-pasture. The small amount of existing winter pasture was only available in the lowlands, where it was monopolised by large-scale ranches. The desire for more drove efforts to exterminate perceived pests.

Thistle explains his choice to use horses and grasshoppers as focus points as a product of the archives, where most of the evidence around BC’s dryland ranching history exists in documents related to pest control (8). Beyond archival happenstance, there are good reasons for orienting the narrative around these two animals. Extermination efforts represent the culmination of a mix of complicated, multi-layered social and ecological pressures on the range. Dreams of fat cattle and rich bunchgrass pastures resulted in dead horses and grasshoppers. Thistle works backwards and outwards from their deaths, along various lines of ecological and human influence. As a result, he is able to portray the drylands as a dynamic landscape influenced and shaped by diverse human and environmental forces over a long period rather than a static landscape proceeding through history in a linear fashion. Thistle’s clear and accessible prose makes horses and grasshoppers compelling, relatable, and interesting subjects whose deaths at the hands of ranchers and regulators effectively captures reader interest.

The real power of this book is the way that Thistle weaves horses and grasshoppers into ever widening concentric circles of history. Thistle claims that he “wanted to do for the drylands of Interior British Columbia what…William Cronon had done for New England, Arthur McEvoy had done for coastal California, or Richard White had done for Island County” (4). He has certainly accomplished this. Although this book is ostensibly about one small part of BC, it manages to cover an impressive amount of historical and theoretical ground. For example, Resettling the Range might easily be read as a history of science: as Thistle looks at what was (and is) written about the range, he shows how science has been historically used as a tool, constructed, simplified, and sometimes ignored to serve the immediate social and economic needs of dryland residents. Resettling the Range is also a work of environmental justice: Thistle writes powerfully about First Nations dispossession at the hands of ranchers and regulators. A variety of national and international forces intersect in his story, including confederation, the railway, capitalism, improvement, and efficiency. The result provokes big questions: what is the relationship between science and governance? How has ecology worked with power in colonial states? Are wild horse and grasshopper exterminations a symptom of an inherently dysfunctional capitalism market system?

If there is one shortcoming in this book, it is in Thistle’s treatment of First Nations responses to the resettlement of the range, particularly in the later years of his study. Once confined to reserves and their horses slaughtered, indigenous voices begin to fade. The second half of Resettling the Range instead focuses on scientific and institutional history. Yet, brief mentions of First Nations participation in reserve poison programs, and their seasonal engagement with the ranching wage economy suggests that there is an underlying story here not given quite enough attention.

Resettling the Range packs a lot into just 218 pages. While this book will undoubtedly find a place on the shelves of environmental historians and historians of British Columbia, it is also of interest to those studying the history of science, indigenous history, and Canadian history more broadly. In placing BC’s grassland ecology in conversation with interactions between First Nations and settlers, small-holders and monopolists, the province and the nation, and the nation and the world, this book represents an important contribution to the field.

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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