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B.C. releases documents revealing hunting culture among conservation officers

After repeatedly denying the existence of such documents, the B.C. government has finally complied with a freedom-of-information request revealing a strong hunting culture within the conservation officer service.

After repeatedly denying the existence of such documents, the B.C. government has finally complied with a freedom-of-information request revealing a strong hunting culture within the conservation officer service.

The person who successfully navigated the bureaucracy where others couldn’t and who refused to take no for an answer is Bryce Casavant, the former conservation officer who gained international attention and support when he refused a superior’s order to kill two young bear cubs on Vancouver Island in 2015.

The FOI documents reveal that 75 of 106 mainly uniform and patrol officers — 70 per cent — have hunting records and that 48 specifically purchased hunting licences last year. Four officers unsuccessfully applied for limited-entry grizzly bear hunts, which have since been banned by the NDP government except for First Nations for food, social and ceremonial purposes. Names of the officers aren’t included in the documents.

Casavant argues that the high number of hunters in the service are evidence of a bias that fuels a kill-rather-than-conserve mentality, especially when dealing with black bears that come into contact with people. Conservation officers killed 475 black bears B.C.-wide from April to December in 2017.

He believes that department policies along with the large numbers of conservation officers who hunt result in the government not being “truly interested” in solving wildlife conservation issues: “Their recruitment is targeting those that want to hunt and kill for work.”

In response, communications officer David Karn released a written statement on behalf of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, saying that “part of the evaluation process for prospective employees includes ensuring values align with the role of a conservation officer. A desire to protect B.C.’s environment, and fish and wildlife resources, is essential.”

The ministry statement added that the government works with FOI applicants to ensure they get the available information they’re looking for in a timely fashion and that responses include all documents available at the time of the request. The ministry declined to discuss specific cases.

Casavant lives in Port McNeill, but ran for the NDP in the last provincial election in the riding of Oak Bay-Gordon Head, losing to Green party Leader Andrew Weaver.

He said he pursued the FOI request as part of his research in association with Royal Roads University, not as a B.C. civil servant. He expressed dismay at the “government’s behaviour in this matter and I feel for those members of the public who came forward to me. This is not the public service that I know.”

Three individuals approached him after they were stymied in their attempts to find out how many conservation officers were hunters, he said, adding they received letters saying no records could be located.

Casavant filed his own FOI request, and he, too, was initially rejected, but pursued the issue until he got the results based on his inside knowledge of government databases and the department.

“It really ticks me off when bureaucrats just block the public from exercising their information rights,” he said.

The response of the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. to FOI requests is only as good as the information provided by the ministry, Casavant said.

“They don’t know what records the government has. It’s all based on the honour system,” he said.

Casavant also said he believes the Conservation Officer Service is too closely tied to pro-hunting organizations such as the Guide Outfitters Association of B.C. and B.C. Wildlife Federation, all of which sit on a wildlife regulation advisory committee that helps to establish hunting regulations.

In July 2015 an adult female bear was shot after breaking into a freezer and grabbing garbage from inside a home near Port Hardy. Casavant was ordered to shoot the female’s two, eight-week-old cubs on the assumption they were conditioned to human garbage and not candidates for rehabilitation.

Casavant refused, believing there was no evidence to support their death sentence, and took them to the non-profit North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre for rehab. He was suspended from his job and, following a public outcry, transferred from the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations to serve as a natural resource officer.

The cubs — Athena and Jordan — were released into the wild in June 2016, and were thought to have successfully hibernated on their own.

Currently, there are 148 conservation officers employed in 45 offices in eight regions spread across the province.