Wildlife, Land, and People: A Century of Change in Prairie Canada

"Gladstone, Manitoba hunters returning from the field." n.d. Courtesy of LAC. PA 021467.

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Wild animals have traditionally not been a part of what we think matters in the history of the prairie west. To be sure, prairie historians have made mention of wolves, bison, gophers, and other animals that add colour to the story of Euro-Canadian settlement.  But wild animals were given little historical reality and significance.

My own writing over the past 25 years has shown the same tendency. Animals crept in from time to time — as economic resources, as sources of recreation, and as part of the treaty rights of First Nations. But they were never central actors.

Why then give them a more central role now?

For one, the environmental crisis we face today demands a closer look at how it has come to pass. So too, the arguments of a generation of environmental historians that environment and people form a dynamic interplay provides increasingly well-developed models for thinking holistically about environment, wildlife, and people.[1] In addition, there has been striking growth in the field of animal studies. Historians are increasingly drawing on this trend to refine approaches to environmental history. As historian Jon Coleman phrases it, the animals have always been there, and it is time to bring them back into history.[2]

Wetherel_Comps10When I look at the history of the prairie west through this lens, it is immediately apparent how central wild animals have been in everyday life. As I discuss in my new book Wildlife, Land, and People: A Century of Change in Prairie Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), settlers and Aboriginal people in many districts relied on wild meat and fish for food or income, and the struggle over treaty hunting rights remained a touchstone for the unequal relationship of Euro-Canadian and Aboriginal peoples. For most First Nations peoples, wild animals were also of cosmic significance and helped explain the development of the world. And from the start of settlement, there was ongoing discussion about the minds and character of wild animals, and writers such as Ernest Thompson Seton (whose Manitoba years were formative in his life’s work) and a host of less famous writers penned essays, stories, and poems about the lives of wild animals and their meaning for human society.

A more general fascination with wild animals was also evident in the nature columns in almost every regional magazine and major newspaper. Kerry Wood of Red Deer, Alberta, for example, wrote hundreds of articles about animals between 1923 and the 1960s. And Doug Gilmour’s weekly nature column that began in 1954 in the Western Producer drew a loyal readership over several decades.

The widespread practice of keeping wild animals as pets too often arose from a fascination with or fondness for them, even though it usually ended badly for the animals. And many people enjoyed watching wild animals in zoos and national parks or learning about them in museums and through the activities of natural history societies throughout the region. As two examples, by the early 1960s the Calgary Zoo (established in 1919) drew over a million visitors a year while the Museum of Natural History in Regina (established before the First World War) was by then one of the most respected and visited institutions in the region.

"A visitor feeding pronghorns at Buffalo National Park," n.d. Courtesy of LAC, PA 040649.
“A visitor feeding pronghorns at Buffalo National Park.” N.d. Courtesy of LAC. PA 040649.

This public fascination with wild animals in zoos, museums, and national parks was genuine and widespread, but was most often framed by human priorities. Wild animals were displayed and managed to provide entertainment, draw tourists, and promote economic development, all the while confirming human dominance of the natural world. Wildlife policy in the national parks, for example, was strongly informed by a desire to keep wild animals on display in the wild for tourists. Meanwhile, predators such as wolverines, wolves, and coyotes were culled to protect big game and fur bearers, a policy that continued until the 1960s when more ecological approaches began to inform wildlife management in general. Most of the prairie national parks also displayed wild animals in paddocks, which at Banff was supplemented by a zoo, aviary, and museum. Within this framework, however, some national parks also played a vital role in species preservation. Wood Buffalo, Riding Mountain, and Elk Island National Parks and the now-closed Buffalo National Park and Nemiskam National Antelope Park were created specifically to conserve endangered plains and wood bison, elk, and pronghorns.

On farms and ranches, the encounter with wildlife was more uniformly adversarial.  With the exception of farm support for the protection of insectivorous birds, there was little pretence of accommodating nature; prairie farming was celebrated as the remaking of the region’s land, economy, and social fabric.

It had been presumed that with the bison gone and the land cleared of wolves, farming and ranching would face no challenges from wildlife. But the farmed landscape turned out to be suitable for foxes, coyotes, ground squirrels, badgers, crows, and magpies, all of which increasingly adapted to new farm ecosystems. Given a mindset that saw any barrier to farm production as something to be eliminated, farmer warfare with wildlife at times became obsessive and brutal. As “gopher” populations expanded because of fields of low-growing crops, campaigns to kill them became community events and children in particular were rewarded for killing them by any means. Wolves were extirpated from the southern plains by the First World War, but coyotes adapted better to the new niches created by farming. Campaigns against them were unrelenting but unsuccessful until the late 1940s, when more lethal poisons brought into being by the postwar chemical revolution and government-organised hunting almost entirely eliminated them in most parts of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Critics such as Kerry Wood, the journalist James Gray, and others railed against the slaughter, arguing that domestic dogs were to blame for much of the predation blamed on coyotes, and that the elimination of coyotes would upset the “balance of nature.”

"Gladstone, Manitoba hunters returning from the field." n.d. Courtesy of LAC. PA 021467.
“Gladstone, Manitoba hunters returning from the field.” N.d. Courtesy of LAC. PA 021467.

These adversarial relationships with wildlife were also prevalent among sport hunters and anglers. Hunting wild animals for sport was popular (although not as widespread or as socially acceptable as its advocates often claimed) and reflected complex social relations. Hunting organizations, for example, resisted efforts by wildlife advocates to create tighter hunting controls during the collapse of waterfowl populations during the 1920s and ‘30s and consistently worked to maintain sport hunting as a central plank in state wildlife policy. These organizations (often in co-operation with government) introduced foreign game birds such as Hungarian partridges into the wild to compensate for declining populations of native grouse, while game fish (especially various species of trout) were introduced to improve sport fishing. They also sponsored predator control programs against magpies and crows (blamed for predation of game birds), against wolves in northern areas (blamed for killing big game), and against carnivorous fish such as pike (blamed for eating ducklings and sport fish).

Human-animal encounters on the Prairies thus formed a range of sometimes disparate, often contradictory assumptions about people and nature that were continually acted out in specific sites of engagement. While empathetic attitudes towards wild animals were evident, the dominant discourse told of a natural world remade for people’s personal and collective benefit and need. This, in turn, became integral to the region’s economic and social life. While the consequences of these dominant views remain, the empathetic attitudes seen among the many people dedicated to understanding and learning about wild animals and conserving endangered species also endure as historical models for co-existence and the preservation of species diversity.


[1] For wild animals, see for example, George Colpitts, Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002) and Tina Loo, States of Nature: Conserving Canada’s Wildlife in the Twentieth Century (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006).

[2] Jon T. Coleman, “Two by Two: Bringing Animals into American History,” Reviews in American History 33, no. 4 (December 2005): 481-92.

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Donald Wetherell

Donald Wetherell is Professor Emeritus, Heritage Resources Management, Athabasca University. He is the author of a number of books and articles on prairie and Alberta history, including architectural, social, and urban history. He lives in Vancouver.

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