Reform Needed in the B.C. Conservation Service

“In 2023, 603 black bears were killed by conservation officers, the highest number on record in the last ten years”.

In fall of 2022 in the community of Nelson, British Columbia residents were stricken with grief following the killing of a mother bear and her cub by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS). Residents were aware that a second cub belonging to the family had hidden in a tree as his mother and brother were shot and following the incident community members can vividly recall the young cub exerting loud cries from the tree for multiple days. As far as these residents are  aware, no attempt was made by BCCOS to capture the second cub and deliver the young bear to any of the three available rehabilitation facilities in the province.

Despite the formidable odds against this cub and to the community’s delightful surprise, the bear survived the winter of 2022 and was spotted several times throughout 2023 – even observed in a local park playing on a slide with another young bear. The young bear had been roaming the town for several weeks this winter causing concern with a change in appearance due to a loss in her longer outer coat and looking thinner than the average bear given the time of year- though experts claim she appeared relatively healthy. After a few day period with no sightings of this locally treasured bear, community members began to worry.

Regardless of the expert opinion on the bear’s overall condition, the young bear was tranquillised in a local residents backyard by BCCOS. While under sedation she was evaluated by the conservation officer who communicated their observations to a biologist over the phone. Shortly after, the bear was killed by the officer on scene.

A few weeks prior in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley, an orphaned bear cub was spotted on the side of Highway 19. Upon first sighting, the cub appeared quite emaciated, which is unusual for the post-hyperphagia season. According to a veterinary expert, the cub would have made a prime candidate for rehabilitation. Sadly, this was an opportunity not afforded to the tiny cub as it was also shot by a conservation officer.

Spirit bear and black bear cub
Photo: Ian McAllister

The B.C. Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS) website states that they “recognize that maintaining public trust and confidence in the communities it serves is essential”.

Over the years the public’s perception of the agency has often been met with disappointment and frustration at the loss of wildlife, especially when non-lethal pathways were available to officers. Public distrust has evolved so significantly that many communities take to social media, discouraging their neighbours from calling the RAPP (Report all poachers and polluters) line in fear of animal losses through mismanagement.

This has led some members of the public to also question whether the qualifications of Conservation Officers are sufficient to make appropriate decisions when called to deal with wildlife. Officers of the conservation service are typically required to complete the following training: the Canadian Firearms Safety Course, the B.C. Conservation Outdoor Recreation and Education course, and a natural resource law applied degree or diploma (equivalent combinations of education and experience may be considered).

Upon successful candidacy for employment, new officer recruits are required to spend 16 weeks training at the Western Conservation Law Enforcement Academy (WCLEA). As stated on the B.C. government websitethe curriculum places heavy emphasis on field skills and legal studies, including classroom and practical instruction in the following areas: ATV operations, Cross cultural awareness, Emergency vehicle operations, Law enforcement ethics, Firearms (rifle, shotgun, pistol), Use of force options, Water safety, Investigations, Legal studies, MED A3/SVOP, Small and large group prop vessels, Swift water rescue and Human wildlife conflicts”.

All of the prerequisites for employment within the service as well as the training provided and required by the service are heavily centred on law enforcement and hunting with limited education pertaining to species specific biology, life cycles, behaviours, ecological threats or education that promotes peaceful coexistence.

Four years have passed since Pacific Wild first called for accountability within the BCCOS by mandating officers to wear body cameras. The conservation officer service lacks third party oversight and conservation officers are often working individually and in remote areas. Mandating the use of body cameras would allow for more transparency around officer actions and observations, and will help to build public trust.

The volume of wildlife fatalities at the hands of conservation officers across the province has been overwhelming and uninterrupted for years.  The service’s website states “a tremendous amount of responsibility and trust is invested in each member of the Conservation Officer Service”; considering an abundance of British Columbians feel consistently appalled by the frequency in which wildlife has been killed by the agency, repairing confidence in the Service is essential. In 2023, 603 black bears were killed by conservation officers, the highest number on record in the last ten years.

The narrative set by the BCCOS is the concept that all bear killings are a result of attractant management issues in local municipalities. This presumption is based on the belief that if there were no non-natural foods available then there would be no public safety issues; as a result, no bears would be killed by conservation officers. Because of this narrative, officers and government executive staff are trained to believe all bear deaths are the public’s fault.

Attractant management does play an important role in coexistence; however, it should not consistently be used as justification for wildlife killed by BCCOS. There is an obvious inattention toward the value of providing public education to better understand wildlife, and a dismissal of enforcement regarding the issuing of fines to residents not securing attractants. The provincial landscape has limited space that we all exist in, and as human development and industrial extraction continues to destroy more habitat, we have to expect to coexist with bears, whether or not we have garbage, we continue to build our own homes on top of homes that were once theirs. Coexistence is achievable, and we need to make use of every non-lethal avenue available to safeguard these animals from harm.

Please consider sending a copy of our pre-written letter to demand the necessity for public transparency, accountability and third party oversight with the B.C. Conservation Service.