Wildlife, Land, and People

A Century of Change in Prairie Canada

Reviewed by Nelle Oosterom

September 19, 2017

Appropriately enough, I happened to read a good part of this book while vacationing near Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan. A small remnant of what was once a vast prairie stretching over three provinces, Grasslands has been preserved as a niche where wildlife that once faced extinction — pronghorn, black-footed ferret, black-tailed prairie dog, golden eagle, and, of course, bison — now roam freely.

That said, and even with my interest in natural history, I didn’t expect to find this five-hundred-plus-page tome all that engaging, given the dry title. And it is, by nature, so to speak, academic. Yet I found myself drawn in to Donald G. Wetherell’s accessible, sometimes-passionate, always measured writing style. Commenting on the impact of settlement of the prairies, he writes, “The decline and near extinguishment of some species was extraordinary and forms a critical aspect of the region’s history. Indeed, for some, the environmental history of the Canadian prairies is largely the story of a bloody warfare waged on species after species.”

As the author, a professor emeritus of heritage resource management at Athabasca University, points out, the changes on the prairies that took place after Confederation involved a lot of coming as well as going. While native species declined, newcomers came in. Some have been here so long that most people likely don’t realize they are not native to the prairies.

Surprisingly, to me, the humble earthworm was among the new arrivals. Whether it landed by accident or design, no one knows, but the fact is that there were no earthworms on the prairies until the early twentieth century. Mule deer declined, but whitetail deer apparently found the new farming environment hospitable and were first spotted in Manitoba in 1881. They are now widespread. Same with jackrabbits (1880s) and cottontails (1930s).

Some native species became more numerous when other species died off. Wolves largely disappeared, thanks to bounties placed on their heads, but foxes and coyotes thrived with the abundance of mice that multiplied in the straw that was left in grain fields. Robins also liked living on farmland and became abundant. Crows and magpies disappeared with the bison but returned when the land was settled. And it was settled quickly. About a million people, mostly Europeans, arrived on the prairies between 1901 and 1910. As Wetherell notes, “Breaking the land for cultivation was literally the breaking of one natural world and its replacement with another.”

This wide-ranging book delves deeply into the variety of attitudes people held towards wildlife. For instance, a study of the Rock Cree of northern Manitoba in the 1970s suggested that Indigenous beliefs about animals were not necessarily uniform. Some believed animals that were killed by hunters went to their deaths willingly; others believed that they had to be tricked into giving their lives. And some believed that killing ensured regeneration, which made it difficult to convince some Rock Cree hunters of the need to stop killing animals when they became scarce.

The attitudes of settlers are wellknown. Wild animals were generally “friend or foe.” But who was a friend and who was a foe changed over time and circumstances. And the measures used to kill off the enemy were sometimes extreme, such as strychnine bait for wolves or dynamite bombs for crows.

Even children were enlisted to kill. Gopher hunting became entrenched as a prairie childhood tradition — a bounty of a half a penny per gopher tail went a long way during the Depression. From the 1920s to the late 1940s, school trips were organized in spring to hunt for the eggs of crows and magpies. Any unfortunate fledglings the children encountered had their legs torn off so that they could be turned in for prizes or cash. Not everyone went along with it. At least one farm newspaper, the Western Producer, argued in 1928 that such behaviour should not be encouraged because it perverted “a child’s impulses to be kind to all living creatures.”

As Wetherell notes, it took some time for farmers to realize that many animals did more good than harm and that it was worth sacrificing a few chickens or some grain in return for the control of mice and insects.

Wildlife, Land, and People covers a lot of ground and goes into great detail on many topics, including hunting, conservation, government regulation, and so on. Among the themes that stand out is attitude. Human attitudes towards wildlife generally range from benevolent, to hostile, to indifferent. The author does a good job of exploring the myriad perspectives people have held — and still hold — and how these beliefs impact the natural world.

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