While this time of year B.C.’s conservation officers (COs) are usually busy dealing with bear encounters, this is just one small aspect of what their duties entail.
According to David Cox, a CO based in Penticton, no two days on the job are the same. He said that because of the training COs receive, they can assist in multiple law enforcement areas as well as search and rescue and wildfire efforts.
“In the 10 years that I have been doing this a lot has changed. Focuses have shifted, priorities have shifted, new legislation has come in so we wear different hats,” said Cox. “It’s always adapting and changing with the times. The role of a CO is quite broad, it’s not the same thing over and over every day.”
“It’s definitely getting busier right now for sure. We’re dealing with a lot of illegal dumping files right now, obviously with spring cleaning and people moving,” said Cox in response to how his past few weeks have been. “It kind of goes hand-in-hand with people dumping miscellaneous junk out in the bush, and it leaves us to piece together the investigation and deal with that.”
Cox said residents can face fines of $575 for illegal dumping and, in some cases, even a court appearance where they can face a heftier fine amount. He also explained that depending on the type of substances dumped and how long it remains there without being cleaned up, the dumpee can face multiple fines.
“In terms of bear activity, it’s frustrating because we’re not getting a lot of buy-in from some of the local communities. A lot of residents are just not buying into managing their garbage and argue, ‘Well I’ve lived here for 10 or 15 years and this has never happened to me.’ That’s gotta stop,” said Cox. “We need people to take measures ahead of time to stop this conflict. Because ultimately, a fed bear is a dead bear.”
May long weekend is around the corner and Cox anticipates it will be just as busy as ever for COs in terms of checking in on camper activity. He said they like to see people out and enjoying parks and recreation areas, so long as they behave themselves and respect the area they’re utilizing.
“Seasonally, our job changes. So this time of year we are also dealing with pesticides being put out there into the environment. So we need to make sure people are storing them and using them correctly,” said Cox. “We have another division within the ministry that specializes in that, but when they find non-compliance or there’s reports to our agency, we investigate those too to make sure everyone is safe.”
Cox said this time of year COs frequently attend to illegal burning calls, noting that there are certain days when controlled burns are allowed in certain areas, depending on the venting index.
“People tend to burn outside the venting index when it’s poor, so then the smoke settles in the valley and it’s bad for health,” said Cox. “And then sometimes prohibited items find their way into the fire as well, such as couches and all sorts of things so we have to investigate that a lot this time of year.”
A little known fact is that COs have similar authority to RCMP and police officers, according to Cox. While their mandate is to protect environmental resources and “they don’t go out looking for other types of infractions”, it is not uncommon for a CO to issue tickets for non-environment-related offences.
“We rarely need to get RCMP involved when we run our own investigations. We work in joint partnership with them all the time, but more so with officer safety scenarios. So if we know we are out-numbered or a situation is dangerous than obviously the more bodies there the better,” said Cox. “We enforce 32 different acts and legislations, so we have the authority to write violation tickets, warnings, or what we call report to crown counsel. So we do all that as COs.
“COs are peace officers in the province of B.C., and we also have what is called special provincial constable status under the Police Act. So through that we have very similar authorities as RCMP and municipal policing.”
Cox said for example, they frequently come across reckless driving, stolen vehicles, and impaired drivers. He said they will still lean on the RCMP for those type of infractions though.
And if you think that conservation officers are only worried about what happens on land, Cox explained they enforce boating legislation much like RCMP. Not to mention the various specialty divisions within the ministry such as the predator attack team, the major crimes unit, and the controlled alien species team.
He added that another lesser-known fact about CO duties and relationships is that if a poacher is caught with illegal game, they have the authority to seize it as it is still property of the Crown. From there, any usable portions of meat are donated to local First Nations groups or food banks so as not to let it go to waste.
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