Wildlife group wants BC conservation officers to wear body cameras

Jan 7 2020, 1:58 pm

It’s a new decade, and time for a new mandate for BC’s conservation officers, according to wildlife organization, Pacific Wild.

In an open letter to the environment minister, Pacific Wild is now calling on George Heyman to make it mandatory for individual conservation officers to wear body cameras and for an independent oversight of the environmental policing agency.

In an interview with Daily Hive, Pacific Wild Spokesperson Bryce Casavant said the letter comes after it was discovered that more than 4,300 black bears were destroyed by conservation officers in the past eight years — a number the group calls alarming.

Casavant, a former BC conservation officer himself, said the latest statistics posted on the BC government website, in that eight year timeframe, show more than 160 grizzly bears were killed and 780 cougars — with more than 540 black bears and 26 grizzlies destroyed in 2019 alone, “the annual trend is not really changing.”

(The North Shore Black Bear Society/Facebook)

Casavant cited two reasons as to why Pacific Wild wants to see body cameras and third party oversight brought in for conservation officers.

The first is “wildlife conservation and the treatment of non-human species by law enforcement personnel, as our human footprint keeps expanding into these wildlife habitat areas,” he said. “We are going to have population dispersion of wildlife into these new areas where there haven’t been humans historically — and the current trend is to keep trying to kill our way out of that, out of that relationship with wildlife and that’s not appropriate,”

The second reason, said Casavant, is because “there’s hundreds of instances where a law enforcement officer is discharging their service weapon in an urban environment and there’s nobody reviewing this.”

In modern law enforcement, he continued, “that is very very unique and British Columbia should be – and especially the minister – should be concerned about the public safety implications of firearms being discharged in our communities hundreds of times without any real accountability mechanisms in place,” he said.

Casavant said BC wouldn’t be the first to put this policy into action, as there are areas south of the border that have conservation officers wearing body cameras, such as Florida.

Casavant said with body cameras in place, footage and data could then be subject to a freedom-of-information process, available for an independent review board overlooking officer conduct, and courts — either for defending an officer’s actions, or reverse, “so it works both ways.”

byward market

Cynthia Kidwell/Shutterstock

In a statement, the Ministry of Environment said the men and women who make up the Conservation Officer Service (COS) are “dedicated individuals with a desire to protect BC’s fish, wildlife, and natural resources. Conservation Officers are dedicated to protecting and preserving wildlife and always consider all options before euthanizing an animal.”

In 2019, the ministry said, the COS received more than 20,000 calls related to bear conflicts, and “wherever possible, efforts are made to relocate or rehabilitate problem wildlife.”

Online it states the “number attended” of calls by the COS related to black bear conflicts adds up to around 2,500 for 2019, not including December.

“Bears and cubs that have lost their fear of people, or are conditioned to human food sources, are not good candidates for relocation or rehabilitation, as they can be far too dangerous,” the ministry said. “Public safety is an officer’s first priority.”

The ministry noted that in efforts to reduce the amount of bear attractants in communities, the COS had recently completed a province-wide audit to reduce human-wildlife conflicts, where “hundreds of hours were also spent educating the public on the importance of managing attractants, which is the best way to prevent wildlife conflicts,” it said, adding the COS will continue these efforts with more bear attractant audits in the spring.

The COS said that it can’t stress enough “that everyone shares a responsibility to prevent such conflicts from happening in the first place — this is the best way to keep people safe and bears from being destroyed.”

Casavant said, “it’s unreasonable to believe that, including juvenile bear cubs, over 4,000 black bears were killed as a last resort.”

He said Pacific Wild is now hoping to sit down with the Minister of Environment to discuss the letter further.