from bunchgrass to grazeland

April 9, 2021

 

With Earth Day fast approaching, the Vernon Museum has taken the opportunity to research how local human activity has effected, and continues to effect, ecosystems and wildlife in the North Okanagan.

Until the end of April, the museum will share a series of articles that explore some of the results of this investigation.

The importance of the introduction of cattle to the Valley cannot be overstated.

ranches as hubs of development

Early cattle drives passed through the Valley in the late 1850s, where the animals would feast on the Okanagan’s abundant bunchgrass, before continuing on their way to the gold fields of the Fraser Canyon. 

By the end of the next decade, upwards of 22,000 head of cattle had crossed the border at the south end of the Okanagan Valley.

Cattle round-up of Chief Clerke’s cattle at Wye Lake (Goose Lake area).
Date unknown.

 

 

Early cattle drives, and, later, the establishment of ranches, allowed the Okanagan to become a hub of economic activity. Despite this benefit, the arrival of large droves of cattle inevitably shaped the natural landscape in lasting ways.

Later, pioneers like Thomas Wood, Thomas Greenhow, and Cornelius O’Keefe arrived to pre-empt land and start permanent ranches. Their small herds grew rapidly in number.

From A Sea of Waving Grasses

The Okanagan of 1850s and ‘60s would have been almost unrecognizable to us today. The Valley bottom was covered not with areas of human development, but with fields of tall grass that, as they swayed in the breeze, resembled a vast, moving sea.

These grasses were especially adapted to our warm, dry climate. In particular, bunchgrass, of which there are several different species in the Okanagan, has a deep root system as well as a specific morphology which allows it to survive long periods of drought.

This bunchgrass was also perfect animal fodder and after a decade or so of constant feeding, the bunchgrass population began to suffer. By the 1890s, much of the bunchgrass had been stripped from the Valley. 

TO A Few Sparse Patches

Since then, the science of range management has progressed greatly, and it’s not the ranches that prove the greatest threat to native bunchgrass, but human encroachment. Areas of bunchgrass can still be found (at Kalamalka Lake Park, for example) but what was once a sea of grass is now only a few sparse patches. Today, only 9% of native bunchgrass is left in the Okanagan.

There are many approaches that we can take to curb the destruction of native bunchgrass populations, including supporting ecological restoration and habitat renewal initiatives, remaining on trails and marked areas when hiking and biking, learning about the growth cycle of plants and making informed decisions when allowing animals to graze, and taking an active role in preventing the spread of invasive weeds.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, an excellent read is “Bunchgrass and Beef: Bunchgrass Ecosystems and the Early Cattle Industry in the Thompson-Okanagan,” by local historian Ken Mather, available online at https://royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/exhibits/living-landscapes/thomp-ok/article-LL/contents-beef.html.

Gwyn Evans

An infamous remittance man

 

February 25, 2021

Perhaps he was trying to take some of the attention away from his Marchioness sister, or maybe he just wanted to scandalize the ladies.

Whatever the case, back in Vernon’s Cowtown days, few developed as infamous a reputation as one Coutts Marjoribanks (pronounced Marchbanks).

to the colonies

Coutts was born in 1860 into an aristocratic British family. His father, Dudley Marjoribanks, was a Scottish businessman and politician who was later elevated to the position of Baron Tweedmouth.

Dudley and his wife Isabella had seven children, two of whom died as infants, with Coutts being the second-youngest.

When he came of age, like many other energetic, perhaps considered unruly, younger sons of upper-crust British families, Coutts was sent overseas for a life in the colonies.

These men were often given an allowance, or “remittance” from their well-to-do families. And, this remittance often made it possible for them to try on the parts of farmer, cowboy, or rancher in this new, “wild” world.

 

Portrait of Coutts Marjoribanks in 1895; Portrait of Lady Aberdeen at King Edward’s Coronation in 1902.

 

 

Coutts Marjoribanks (seated) with ranch hand

“not a particularly nice man”

He spent his youth cattle ranching in Texas, which instead of taming his boisterous personality and adventurous spirit, only encouraged it. He quickly became an accomplished roper, rider, and rancher.

Although Coutts was thriving in his new lifestyle, his family did not approve of his antics, and he was pushed to move to Vernon where he could be under the watchful of his older sister, Ishbel, the Lady Aberdeen. A few years earlier, the Aberdeens had purchased the Coldstream Ranch, and Coutts became its first manager.

Yet, even this increased-level of responsibility couldn’t dampen Coutts spirits, and he quickly earned a reputation in Vernon for his brazenness. Of Coutts, local woman Alice Barrett describes “never wanting to know him, for he is not a particularly nice man.”

You Can Lead a Horse to…

Photographer Charles Holliday seems to have been more entertained by Coutt’s peculiarities, and details with barely-veiled amusement his tendency to ride his horse right into the Kalamalka Hotel whenever he wanted a drink, which was apparently often.

Once when Coutts was loading a shipment of cattle into the back of a train, he was chastised by a passing parson for using expletive language in front of his ranch hand. Coutts lashed back with “Hell man! I’m not teaching a Sunday school, I’m loading cattle, and I’ll bet that Noah swore when he was loading his animals into the ark.”

Despite his rough manners, Coutts had an undeniable charisma that left most people begrudgingly fond of him—Alice Parke being an obvious exception. Coutts stepped down from his position as Manager of the Coldstream Ranch in 1895, but remained with his wife Agnes and two children in Vernon until his death in 1924. 

Gwyn Evans