Back to the Woods: This Time, Seeking Stories

Northern goshawk in flight. Source: Ferran Pestaña.

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The fourth instalment in the Not Your Day Job series.

When I was completing my undergrad degree in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria in the early 1990s (and yes I fit the stereotype nicely: MEC rad pants, Guatemalan textiles, and go-anywhere hiking boots were all part of my daily uniform), I wanted nothing more by the end of winter term than to get outside—to the big outside, or what I considered, at the time, the “wilderness” of my Vancouver Island home’s northwest coast (I’ve since been corrected on those assumptions about wilderness).

What I really wanted was to make clambering through mossy old-growth understories my life’s work. But as a humanities student, my efforts to gain experience were often frustrated. Environmental Studies was a relatively new discipline in the early 90s, and the program hadn’t yet established any formalized internship opportunities. When opportunities did present themselves, I was sometimes comically unprepared. An interview in my early twenties for a coveted ranger job with BC Parks stands out in my memory. One of those scenario questions (heart pounding): Q. “What would you do if you encountered a man on an ATV driving through a sensitive alpine meadow?” A. “I’d chase him in my truck?” Um: wrong answer.

After numerous dead ends and a “character-building” summer of tree-planting in BC’s central interior (a different kind of big outside), I tracked down a volunteer opportunity with the US-based Student Conservation Association (SCA) in the summer of 1993. The US Forest Service would cover my room and board for the summer in exchange for my volunteer labour *clambering through forest understories* in search of an endangered forest raptor species I’d never heard of: the northern goshawk. I couldn’t pack my bags quickly enough. I pulled together my savings from a stultifying retail job, filed my student loan documents for the following September, and travelled to central California to take up my posting with the Sierra National Forest. (They were even foolish enough to assign me a truck).

Northern Goshawk. Source: Norbert Kenntner.

That summer of glorious alpine hikes, star-gazing, and—oh yes—some limited searching for goshawks, notable mainly for their absence, would crack open possibilities both immediate and longer term. It was in large part a product of good timing. In the context of the US Endangered Species Act, the northern goshawk, like the northern spotted owl, had become a poster species—and one with considerable regulatory punch—for mature forest protection. When I looked for work in BC the following summer, it was within the context of the Harcourt NDP government’s land use planning processes and newly-released Forest Renewal BC funding for endangered wildlife inventories. University networks connected me with a young government biologist completing his M.Sc. on the laingi subspecies of the northern goshawk, and I spent the next two summers as a field assistant, first on northern Vancouver Island and the following year on Haida Gwaii. In each place, we spent a lot more time looking for goshawks, “kack-kack-kack”-ing the territorial goshawk alarm call with our warbled cassette players and megaphones on transect lines through salal-dense coastal forests, than we did actually finding goshawks: we recorded just five nest sites over those two summers. Maybe they were as endangered as they said they were. But long days in the field, often in wet and uncomfortable conditions, made for lasting friendships.

Home in BC for the holidays in December 2017, a mutual friend invited that not-so-young biologist and I to join him for a drink. It had been over twenty years since we’d seen each other, and much had changed for both of us. I had left the woods behind—at least in the vocational sense—to become a historian, and he had climbed through the ranks to a top position in government. With retirement on the horizon, he was feeling reflective: good timing to cross paths with a former field-assistant-turned-historian.

The timing was significant in other ways, too. John Horgan had just led an NDP-Green alliance to power after sixteen years of Liberal (in BC, this is code for conservative) rule. One of the new government’s stated priorities was reinvestment in wildlife and habitat protection, an area that had seen deep cuts under the Liberals. Early in the new government’s mandate, a decision to ban the grizzly bear hunt for non-indigenous hunters would reignite thorny questions surrounding wildlife and exacerbate existing urban-rural divisions.

It was in this context—new funds and a new commitment to wildlife protection in BC, and deeply polarizing public debates about human relationships with wildlife—that a senior bureaucrat could afford to feel reflective. Faced with over a decade of institutional knowledge loss due to early retirements and budget cutbacks, he was looking for a way to introduce a new generation of wildlife managers to the history of wildlife and habitat protection in the province, its successes and setbacks, and to provide, for a wider public, historical context for the contentious wildlife debates of the present. He wanted a public history—an accessible and richly-illustrated but rigorous account—that would draw from a multiplicity of perspectives on human relationships with wildlife: hunters, trappers, guide-outfitters, and naturalists; indigenous leaders and resource managers; cattle ranchers and range specialists; biologists, industry representatives, and conservation organizations. He asked if I could help.

We worked out an arrangement wherein the Wildlife and Habitat Branch [1] would support my research, including over seventy-five interviews across the province, and I would produce a report and later a book manuscript that would satisfy my own research objectives. My intellectual property would remain my own. The arrangements, I knew, were both unusual and highly serendipitous: governments don’t hire historians to produce books! At least, they don’t anymore. As a side project that would sit on top of my existing research and teaching responsibilities at York, and one that would position me a contractor for a government client,  this was certainly #notmydayjob. But in other respects it was precisely my day job: using my skills as a historian to research and produce an accessible history of social and environmental change.  

My work conducting interviews over the spring and summer of 2019 has been among the most rewarding of my career. While many of the interviews were completed by telephone from Toronto, the need to conduct some interviews in person took me to Hudson’s Hope and Hazelton, Fort St. John and Williams Lake, Creston and Kamloops. It allowed me to explore parts of the province I’d never before seen, and to partake in the pleasure—and the privilege—of listening to people with long life experience speak about topics for which they held deep knowledge and abiding passion.

One of the many highlights was an interview in Kamloops with a ninety-three-year-old wildlife biologist renowned for his ground-breaking work in the 1950s on moose habitat needs. But this wasn’t the extent of his accomplishments. As we sat in his back yard near the Kamloops airport, the dry red hills rising sharply from the valley floor just a few hundred metres from us, he called out to his adult son—an accomplished naturalist in his own right—to bring him his binoculars, which at the time, were the best night vision binocular available. I left the recording to roll as he pointed out a group of bighorn sheep grazing on the mountain slope behind us. He helped me to differentiate between the ewes and the juveniles before relaying a story of his work to repopulate those same slopes with predecessors of that herd forty years earlier. For me, it was my second-ever sighting of a bighorn sheep. For him, it was a relatively routine sighting of an animal he’d studied and worked with intimately, as a hunter and a biologist, for much of his career. Clearly, though, the thrill was just as present for both of us.

Bighorn sheep near Kamloops, April 2017. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/92645161@N00/34170668245/

The project has not been without its challenges. Too many of my interviewees are older white men, given the white and male-dominated history of the wildlife profession. Seeking out the few women and indigenous wildlife professionals, especially among the older generation of conservation officers and biologists, has been well worth the effort for the value of their insights and perspectives. Producing a history that will do justice to my interviewees and their sometimes wildly diverging opinions will not be easy. And now that the fun part of conducting the interviews is mostly behind me, I am left to make sense of the mountain of interview transcripts, archival records, and secondary sources I have amassed. But this is what we are good at, we historians. There is the challenge of producing something useful and relevant for the Wildlife and Habitat Branch leadership who commissioned the work, while retaining my own intellectual independence as an academic. If the working relationship to date is any indication, however, I am on good footing. “Tell us what you find,” my biologist-cum-senior-bureaucrat friend urged from the beginning, “and don’t be afraid to be critical.”

The story I’ve told about the decades-past experience that led to this project illustrates not only the network character of government work, but also the ways early work experiences can shape our research interests and our opportunities as academic historians. In the end, the project has provided me with an invitation to produce a different kind of public environmental history: a hybrid government-academic initiative that has the potential to reach historians, wildlife professionals, and members of the public long fascinated with, and increasingly concerned about, the prospects of wildlife in a province that has historically prioritized resource extraction. As a side project that is #notmydayjob, it has brought new energy, and new insights, to other projects I am working on, and presented new possibilities for collaborations closer to the places I once called home.

I’m thinking about goshawks in different ways these days, less as elusive quarry in field research and more as drivers of policy in a particular historical moment when land-use planning and regulation—however flawed—held brief promise to mediate the “get the wood out” ethos that has dominated provincial resource (and wildlife) policy since its inception in the late nineteenth century. While the fortunes of the northern goshawk laingi subspecies we searched for have declined since I left the province in 1999, sliding from “special concern” to “threatened” status in COSEWIC’s 2013 assessment, its persistence as a particularly magnificent form of BC wildlife continues to bring me back to the woods in different ways, and with different perspectives.


[1] The Wildlife and Habitat Branch is housed within the province’s mouthful-of-a-ministry, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development or FLNRORD.
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Jennifer Bonnell

Assistant Professor at York University
Jennifer Bonnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at York University. She is the author of Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley (University of Toronto Press, 2014), and co-editor with Marcel Fortin of Historical GIS Research in Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2014). She is currently working on an environmental history of beekeeping and environmental change in the Great Lakes Region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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