A Conversation with Bristol Foster

Posted March 17, 2012 | Categories : FER Interviews,History,People |

Bristol Foster is a naturalist, conservation biologist and documentary filmmaker with a PhD in Ecology. He has over forty years of experience as an ecologist and educator.  Bristol’s illustrious career has included Head of Wildlife Ecology Graduate Studies program at the University of Nairobi (Kenya), Director of the Royal British Columbia Museum and Director of the Provincial Ecological Reserves program.

This interview took place on Mount Douglas in Victoria Nov 28 2011.


Mike Fenger (MF) I am here with Bristol Foster and the Coastal Douglas fir zone up on Mount Douglas here in Victoria and it is late in November but we decided to do things outside. Bristol is a real outdoors person and has for a long time been associated with conservation and the natural environment and Ecological Reserves (ER). We are very pleased to get some Bristol’s insights into the early days and his insights into the early days of Ecological Reserves.  So thank you very much for this interview.

Bristol Foster (BP. A pleasure,

MF I want to start with your early recollections and what drew you to the natural environment?

BF. Well guess I can blame my parents who sent me off to camp when I was about five years old, for five years and I was by far the youngest in the camp at first. And so other kids didn’t relate to me and so I did relate to the naturalists who was there who really had a table with some things on it, a birds nest a wasps nest that was opened up and a birds nest and tadpoles, things such as that and it turned out that it was Earnest Thompson Seaton’s grandson  Stewart Thompson. You know the name Earnest Thompson Seaton.

MF. Yes[1].

BP. So it was this camp that had a lot of Ernest Thompson Seaton’s philosophy and natural history and I was there for five years as I say and that got me onto it.  But in addition we got a bird watching group together not formally at we would meet one another bird watching and this developed into a lifelong relationship with me and Bob Bateman for example. And in those days people weren’t watching television for example they were out there hiking around in the Don Valley of Toronto and seeing if you could see more species of birds in day than anyone else or in that year and so it was a competition going on as well and that is really what got me going.

MF. So did that lead to formal university pursuit in something like biology and botany or how did that happen.

BF Well we were all bird watchers and dedicated bird watchers and there was some pejorative against being bird watchers and that is when I concentrated on mammals and did a Masters on mammals at University of Toronto on phenacomys a rare subarctic vole.  .  That is how I ended up with work for the rest of my life on mammals really.  Up to the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii, to do a PhD on the evolution of native mammals of Haida Gwaii.  And if you Google Bristol Foster you will see the so called island effect, the Foster rule of small mammals[2] getting larger on islands and large mammals like deer getting smaller on islands.  So that is very briefly my history in mamology. I guess it goes a bit further because I picked up a hitch hiker one day and to make a long story short that is how I ended up in Kenya for five years.  Directing graduate school in the School in Mamology and Wildlife ecology and I did the study on giraffes myself and other guys and gals did other species.

MF Well that does sound interesting and after Africa you came back to British Columbia.

BF Yes the contract ran out with the Canadian government and came back to BC to the museum in Victoria as the assistant director to the bran new museum that was in July 1968.

MF And then from there you must have morphed into something to do with ecological reserves (ERs) because you were director of the program in its early days I believe.

BF.  Yes ten years 1974 to 1984.  The Act came through in 1971 but before the
Ecological Reserves Act there was an awful lot of politicking going on especially by Vladimir J. Krajina.  He was quite a guy actually he was from Czechoslovakia and he was a power in the political parties before the Second World War. The Nazi’s came in took over and gave him a hard time and then the war ended and the Communists from the Soviet Union came in and gave him a hard time. So first he was too far left for the Nazi’s and too far right for the Communists.  He didn’t hit it in the middle until he left Czechoslovakia and he and his wife Mary they left by skis according to legend over the mountain passes and down I guess into to Austria and they made their way to Vancouver to University of British Columbia where he became professor of botany and plant ecology.  It was early 1960s there was an international biological program do you remember that Mike?

MF. Yes.[3]

BF .  Part of that program was to set aside natural areas for research and teaching. So he picked up on that and said right BC has to set aside these sorts of areas which became known as ecological reserves. And he Vladimir Krajina brought his experience in politics as I suggested, good and bad and up and down, and he was like a bulldog he grabbed onto this and started chewing on the back sides of the Social Credit government and in particular Minister Ray Williston, Minister of Lands, Parks and Housing I guess it was. Anyhow that is the area in which the ER Act would go through, so he doggedly when after the government and finally got to the government of Williston and Bennett, Wacky Bennet in those days, and they gave in and passed the ER Act through legislature in May 1971.  At the time one of the other Ministers Pat McGeer, Minister of I forgot right now, but said oh this looks like window dressing to him to make the government look good but what were these ecological reserves actually going to do that are substantial and useful.  And I thought of that now and then over the many years since because at times it does seem at times that ERs have been window dressing to make the government look good. I don’t know and I am not sure of how many acres we have now to roughly  got in ERs, one tenth of the are surface area of the province is that right?

MF The number that sticks with me is  0.8 of a percent less than one percent of the 14% that is the protected areas. So they are very small portion an exceedingly small portion even of the protected area system.

BF. That’s right and Krajina I think he had 5% in mind and anyhow we are obviously and a long way from it.  It was 1971 and in those years every year there was a gathering in Victoria, botanists largely but some zoologists too would gather and they would make presentations that they would want this area protected or that area protected.  Over the years there were hundreds of areas proposed for protection.  And every summer there would be people form Universities and elsewhere traveling around the province looking for valuable areas that should be protected. And by 1971 they had the way to do it because the act was established.  And then they started to be established then in 1974 government decided to have one person on staff.  And that almost certainly was Krajina getting pushy to government on that. They opened up this position of in charge of the ER program for the province.  And I was at that time a bureaucrat at the museum which was interesting, fun and challenging.  But I am a field biologist not a paper pusher so I left this rather plum job at the museum as director and went to the head of ER program.  I said head but there were no arms or legs, there was nothing there but me.  And in those days as I suggested we had lots of proposals so I started to try and move those with the most logical and easier ones them through the government.  This meant that I had to go around to the ministries in Victoria and try and convince the Forest Service, or the Lands or BC Hydro and all of these had to be convinced to be on side because any one government agency could cast a veto.  And this was obviously far more that I could do and I hired pretty soon after that two others Trudy (Carson/Chatwin) and Jim Pojar and so it was the three of us for a few years that were the staff for ER.  Jim was the botanists, I was more of the zoologists and Trudy was the everthingest.  So we had great fun and we could go anywhere in the province virtually anytime and propose almost anywhere that was crown land and try and get it through the system.  And as I say we had all these other proposals that others had proposed.  So I was the one really to try and push these things through by getting to know these other public servants who could blockade the proposal.  So I spent a lot of time going around twisting arms and Trudy certainly did as well. And later Lynne Milnes came along when Jim left, so we, all of us, took turns badgering other bureaucrats.  Some were really helpful and I think of the Forest Service, Bill Young. I don’t know if you remember Chief Forester Bill Young[4].

MF. Yes I do.

BF. He was the most helpful. Most of them were fairly obstinate and objectionable like some land the range land people, the people that ran the cattle out it was really hard to get grasslands. It was strange it was easier to get forests than grasslands because the forests were under a Timber License or a Tree Farm License and we could deal with the company.  Range lands and you are dealing with an individual rancher which is much harder for that rancher than it is for the company.  So we had a lot of trouble from ranchers trying to get grasslands.  But as I said we did get forest land but what is it 2% of the Douglas-fir forest here on the coast is left in the natural state and we got a tiny bit of that protected.  So it was one of the hardest. Krajina would lead us on field trips in the summer times.  He would end up in Haida Gwaii and all over the place along with a few others.  And one of our best ERs is the Vladmir Krajina ER up in Haida Gwaii a beautiful forest of big Sitka spruce.

MF And there was a film produced about that time about Vladmir in which you and he are out in his reserve in Haida Gwaii.

BF Yes it’s the “Forests and Vladmir Krajina” National Film board[5] is what it is called and I thought you could look at all these old National Film Board films on their web site, but you can’t I looked for that one and I also looked for “Triangle Island” that is the title and it’s about the ecological reserve on Triangle islet but neither of them are available. Of course they were made decades ago but I guess they weren’t that popular and why they are not on their web site.

MF  That is something maybe we can get and put on the Friends of Ecological Reserves website.

BF Yes I guess it must exist in their archives. Trial island isn’t long and it was used for years by the National Park out at Pacific Rim for guests to the parks who were in the same sort of west coast ecological zone.

MF. So I wanted to ask you if there are any memories, good fond memories, of those field trips or the early days in ERs or was it all a good memory or some that stand out more than others?

BF We had lots of good field trips that’s for sure that is what kept us going because sticking in the office all the time is rather discouraging, especially when we got so many negative reports for the agencies that we would have to go back to try and convince.  Oh wow I guess one great memory is going with Jim Pojar right up to Whitehorse and down into the Tatshenshini by road, making proposals all along the way.  I took along my son and he fished in the ponds.  That was a great trip and oh going around Haida Gwaii checking out sea bird colonies for protection by going around for two weeks in a boat, all around Haida Gwaii.  Lot of great trips. Good fun and hard work and worth it.

MF You did mention some of the challenges that you faced trying to convince others resource agencies and individuals are some of those challenges that might still be here today for proponents of ERs? What are some of those challenges and how might we deal with those better?

BF In the old days the good old days I and Trudy and so on we could identify certain people in Victoria in each of the Ministries and we took them out for lunch and make them as friends and they were all generally helpful.  And so we had them as friends and then as you know the unit was more or less disbanded. There were seven regions in the province in those days I do not know how many now but the regions look after badgering the local resource person who is objecting to the ecological reserve proposal. And it was transferred to Parks and Parks before they had their own work already.  Ecological Reserves they didn’t quite know what they were, or quite what they were for. Another huge educational process was to get the enthusiasm and drive of a few of us in Victoria scattered among a handful of new people scattered around the province.  And I suppose that slowed things up a bit.  I think now it’s much better, I hope so, and it was Lynne Milne’s idea to get the Friends of Ecological Reserves (FER) going and they have been incredibly helpful. I guess I got the Friends of Royal BC Museum going in the earlier years.  But these Friends (regional ER Wardens) when you need them are very helpful and we needed them badly.  They have been treated badly especially when the centralized system of everything going on in Victoria was spread out in the province and the friends where out all over the province.  They also had particular reserves which they would propose and ones they were looking after and they could go to the local bureaucrats and twist there arm and make sure that they are well looked after. This was actually crucial.

MF  I wonder if you have ideas on management of ERs. You can put a circle around a place on a map but there is natural succession and things change and species are shifting their populations.  So how do you deal with management or don’t you manage ecological reserves?

BF . Well it is really tricky on top of all that we have had we have global warming and climate change and how that is going to make things very different probably in the future. Well it is a difficult question to answer because I don’t know if I know what the answer is. We try to keep things natural that is the idea it is like a living museum well of course it doesn’t work out that way in nature succession and invasive species.  We try and keep out invasive species.  This has been going in North America for 65 million years ever since the meteor hit the Yucatan and wiped out most things in North American. North America is deemed the kind of continent where things are coming over from Panama, from Alaska over the land bridge and through Greenland, it has been going on for millions of years. North America getting these alien species from elsewhere and humans are often carrying them here now accidentally or on purpose. And all you can do with something as invasive species such as broom is try and remove it, which can be done with a lot of work over a few decades.  Don’t just plan to do it for a year because these invasive species will drown local species in some cases.  That is what we do see what’s there, try and keep it that way but I know that you have examples.

MF. Yes there are some for example the Garry oak ecosystem may find an increase in Douglas fir which will eventually over top it and push it out of the system.

BF Push the Garry oak out of the system?

MF Yes the ER may have be set up for Garry oak meadow, it’s going toward Douglas fir and that is the situation.  We have a native species with a longer life span or a bigger foot print that is pushing the Garry oak out.  Any thoughts on that?

BF. I would say in a reserve part of it you manage and part of it you let it go. May be half left it go and the other half keep the Douglas fir out but that is managing it and that is what we are not supposed to do.

MF Yes.

BF But we have let cattle into some ER and again is not part of the regulations as domestic animals yet two thousand years ago it was bison so and they were helping keep it the way it was so cattle will help keep it the way it was as long as there are aren’t too many of them.

MF So is it fair to say a management decision almost has to be made on a reserve by reserve basis?

BF Oh definitely, fire is another thing some reserves we could let fire go or even light a fire every few years but other reserves we would never want a fire.  And there was a fire management policy that I know we set up.

MF.  Now thinking of the ER system which at its height was 154 and then a few have been subsumed into National Parks so they are no long called ERs.  And Friends is keeping track of where they are and will remind National Parks that they actually have these things.  But I wonder if you have any thoughts on where the system was going and whether it really got there?  What I mean is whether the vision of having representative and rare ecosystems was really fully realized?  You left at one point.

BF. I was there for ten years. I left in 84 the Orwellian year of 1984. It was time to leave with Bill Bennett as Premier who had no interest in ERs or natural history generally so  I bailed and come back to Pat McGeer’s comment that ERs are window dressing.  And you look at what we have and less than 1/10th of 1 percent with very little research going on in them and almost no funding for research from government if any.  There used to be but not much anymore if any.  So in fact sure not we haven’t achieved anything like what Vladmir Krajina wanted.  We have made a start, a start a good start, but a long way to go but in the meantime we have all these other forces coming at us especially global warming.

MF So any thoughts perhaps on how to get ER a little more central to the government and maybe too back to the academic community which really sounds like it started it?

BF The academic community certainly did start it.  And I have been out of the loop for quite a while, 1984 that is quite a long time ago that I actually left and yes I get your excellent journal that you publish.  Well, it’s difficult all we can do is our best and it is hard all we can do is to try and convince the politicians and others in government and especially to work at it and this is something valuable.  Once a place is destroyed by whatever means we can never get it back quite the same again so these are incredibly valuable spots that we have saved.  I didn’t answer your question very well did I.

MF. As a non-government volunteer organization we have set some strategic goals for ourselves.  Ours goals certainly are supporting the ER wardens program, attracting science into ERs, looking at the completeness of the ER systems and whether the vast diversity of BC is systematically represented , making known and making people aware of ERs and final keeping Friends a volunteer organization together.  Those are basically our key strategic goals. So if you have for FER on where a bunch of volunteers could happily put their time to most effect that would be appreciated.

BF I think the main things is to guard the reserves we have volunteers look at them at least once a year and write a report if necessary back to the government and a copy to you, the Friends so the Friends can watch over.  It would be really good getting all the Friends together every couple of years.  I know it used to happen and it hasn’t happened in the last year or two has it?

MF We haven’t had a major provincial gathering since 2003 and we have had regional gathers I think in 2008 when there were seven or eight regional meetings.

BF The regional meeting should be every couple of years and it shouldn’t be a big costs as they don’t travel to Victoria they just travel to the region office.

MF. Do you have any thoughts on this emerging citizen science concept, more people with an interest in the environment doing things possibly to document changes or monitoring in ecological reserves.  Is that a difficult thing to do for non-university trained people but people who are interested?

BF To actually do research?

MF To go and monitor or put in plots.

BF Yes I think there are also retired people who could help out like Marc Bell for example.  Who did help out in the past who lives near nearby and he might be may be willing to help with some students looking at the local ecological reserves and put in quadrats, he used to do that. Retired foresters there are lots of people retired throughout the province and to try and find them and get them involved and some of them may be quite delighted to get back into it again in an academic way.  So that is what I would do try and find the local people who have retired and who were in government in a position of research and of course the university people as well who have retired and get them involved.

MF So since you have left the ecological reserves program have you been keeping yourself busy with work in the environment.  What have you been doing?

Bf. What have I been doing? Well lots of travel around the world and leading natural history trips hither and yon and working now on a project out at Royal Rhodes. I don’t know if you want any of that. Robert Bateman has painted over a 1000 paintings and I am working with him to get each one photographed and digitized and he will be talking to each painting and this will be all on the internet as part of the Robert Bateman  Art and Conservation Centre at Royal Rhodes University.

MF It sounds as if you are still active as a conservationists.

BF Oh ya. Sure that is how I started.

MF Those early days and your role have had along and lasting influence on BC and ERs. I have asked and quizzed you about the early days of ER. Thank you very much for sharing your insights.

BF You are welcome Mike.

MF. It is almost December and it is cold and windy.

BF It is chilly but look at that licorice fern it is beautiful.

MF Do you have any other words you would like to leave us with?

BF Oh dear and other words. Well just keep at it. Yes keep at it.

MF  Thank you very much.

BF You are welcome Mike

[1] Ernest Thompson Seton (August 14, 1860 – October 23, 1946) was a Scots-Canadian (and naturalized U.S. citizen) who became a noted author, wildlife artist, founder of the Woodcraft Indians, and one of the founding pioneers of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Seton also influenced Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting. His notable books related to Scouting include The Birch Bark Roll and The Boy Scout Handbook. He is responsible for the strong influence of American Indian culture in the BSA. And from (From Wikipedia).  Deeply concerned for the future of the North American prairie, he fought to establish reservations for American Indians and parks for endangered animals. In 1902 he founded the Woodcraft Indians to give children opportunities for nature study. He chaired the committee that established the Boy Scouts of America.


[2] Foster’s rule (also known as the island rule) is a principle in evolutionary biology stating that members of a species get smaller or bigger depending on the resources available in the environment. This is the core of the study of island biogeography. For example, it is known that pygmy mammoths evolved from normal mammoths on small islands.  Similar evolutionary paths have been observed in elephants, hippopotamuses, boas, deer, and humans.[1][2]  Also check

It was first stated by J. Bristol Foster in 1964 in the journal Nature, in an article titled “The evolution of mammals on islands”.[3] In it, he studied 116 island species and compared them to their mainland varieties. He proposed that certain island creatures evolved into larger versions of themselves while others became smaller versions of themselves. For this, he proposed the simple explanation that smaller creatures get larger in the absence of the predators they had attracted on the mainland and larger creatures become smaller with the absence of food sources.[4]

Later, that idea was expanded upon by the publication of The Theory of Island Biogeography, by Robert MacArthur and Edward O. Wilson. And in 1978, Ted J. Case published a much longer and more complex paper on the topic in the journal Ecology.[5] Case also demonstrated that Foster’s original conjecture for the reason all this happened was oversimplified and not completely true


[3] The International Biological Program (IBP) was an effort between 1964 and 1974 to coordinate large-scale ecological and environmental studies. The IBP was organized under the leadership of C. H. Waddington beginning in 1962 and officially started in 1964, with the goal of exploring “The Biological Basis of Productivity and Human Welfare”. In its early years, Canadian and European ecologists were the main participants; The main results of the IBP were five biome studies


[4] Bill Young was the Chief Forester from 1978 – 84.

[5] This film can be purchase from the National Film Board