‘If we restore it, they will come’
In a new book, John Cowan recounts his long fight to create and preserve a local wildlife refuge
Eighty-six-year-old John B. Cowan helps his wife Avis, 85, into a mint-green, floral-print chair in the mint-green living room of their home in Gridley. He takes the matching chair at her right, just as he has been doing throughout the 57 years they have been married.
The two originally met in the Chico State University Biology Department, where each earned a bachelor’s degree in the field. Cowan later earned a master’s degree in zoology from the University of California, Berkeley.
Five years after the two were married, Cowan embarked on his decades-long effort to create and maintain the state of California’s Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, an effort that is described in the first chapter of his new book, titled A Jewel in the Pacific Flyway.
If Cowan’s name sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve seen it on display at Butte Community College, where the sports facility is named after him. Cowan was one of the original trustees of the college—and the man most responsible for the campus’ becoming a wildlife refuge.
“He’s a gracious leader, a remarkable visionary,” said Patrick Blythe, executive director of institutional advancement at Butte College. “He’s still inspiring, still offers ideas and assistance.”
And age hasn’t stopped him—or his wife. Not only have they put together the new book, he and Blythe are currently working on forming artificial wetlands in the southeast corner of the campus to better house the wildlife in that area. The project underway at Butte College is nearly a small-scale replica of what Cowan created at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, a natural habitat for wildlife just west of Gridley that developed under Cowan’s supervision since the beginning of his 32-year tenure, frim 1947 ti 1980, as its manager.
The Gray Lodge habitat that took half a century to build is a resting place or winter home for millions of ducks and geese that migrate along the Pacific Flyway twice each year. The flyway extends from Alaska and Canada, passes 12 miles west of Gridley and angles down through Mexico to Central America.
Beginning with the existing 2,540-acre refuge, Cowan annexed adjacent farmlands, cut ditches and planted trees until the site reached its current 9,200 acres. In addition to the waterfowl that occupy the lake, the wildlife area offers its surrounding foliage to more than 16 other species. Among them are antelope, coyotes, jackrabbits, turtles, lizards and snakes that roam the retired farmland, as well as a variety of fish.
Many shared in Cowan’s original vision of the Gray Lodge refuge, but they saw it through the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun. Hunting associations, such as Ducks Unlimited, primarily funded the project. Sections of Gray Lodge are now a seasonal hunting ground for waterfowl and pheasants.
“There’s plenty enough [birds] that some can be harvested,” says Avis. But there are also restrictions on hunting days and hours and limits on the number of birds that can be shot.
Cowan, a former hunter himself, now shoots waterfowl only with his camera. He chose to give up the sport due to the amount of time he spent researching the wild birds, but he has no objections to others partaking in it.
“My main concern is the conservation of waterfowl and creating habitat,” says Cowan. “There’s a great need for marshlands and its wildlife.”
A Jewel in the Pacific Flyway, written by Cowan and edited principally by his wife, is a chronological collection of photographs and accompanying explanations of the making of the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. During those decades that Cowan worked to meet the needs for wildlife, the experienced photographer took hundreds of pictures in and near the refuge. The book captures the varying species in their created environment in clear action shots. The book is illustrated with over 200 photographs that show the landscapes before and after construction and all the wildlife in between.
Photographs of the snow-covered Mt. Shasta to one side and the marsh habitat, with its watery reflection, on the other fill the pages of the book with naturally vibrant colors. Some photos show the tranquil reeds in the glow of the sunrise, while others might show a garter snake feasting on a bullfrog. Also pictured are shots of the construction, the hunters and their game, plants and the many insects that buzz through the air.
“If you have pictures, you don’t have to write as much,” Cowan says with a laugh. Originally, though, Cowan did write quite a bit. The book was 20 chapters before Avis Cowan edited it down to seven.
“It was too wordy,” she explains. “John just wants everyone to understand exactly what he’s talking about to the point where he says the same things over again.” She laughs.
Holding the book of his life’s work in his hands, the visual proof of the sanctuary for animals he’s studied and worked on for so long, Cowan begins to preach.
“We have a responsibility to keep our wildlife and to recognize the needs of wildlife,” he said. “If we restore it, they will come. This book shows what man can do to establish natural habitat.”
Then he places the book on the coffee table in front of the mint-green sofa and takes his wife’s hand to help her up.