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BC Conservation Officer Service accused of purchasing 'military-grade' assault rifles

Pacific Wild says they have found evidence B.C.'s conservation officers have exchanged old hunting rifles for new 'military-grade' firearms built on an AR platform.
In a photo posted to Twitter Sept. 25, 2022, BCCOS officers stand in front of the 'The Bastion,' a Provincial Monument dedicated to those officers who lost their lives in active service. Pacific Wild points to the rifle held by the officer on the far left as part of a body of evidence suggesting the service is 'self-arming' with 'military-style' assault rifles.

​An environmental group says it has gathered evidence the BC Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS) is quietly being armed with “military-grade” assault rifles. 

In an open letter to the Office of the Premier and premier-designate David Eby, Pacific Wild says it appears both civilian contractors and BCCOS officers are being issued .308 semi-automatic rifles with detachable high-capacity magazines. 

“They got money for a patrol rifle and turned around and bought an assault rifle,” said Bryce Casavant, director of conservation intelligence for the group. 

Or as the Pacific Wild letter puts it: “The deployment and use of these weapons sends a cumulative war-like provincial message to the public, a hardened stance that is militaristic in appearance and operational practice.”

BCCOS says rifles required

In an email, a spokesperson for the BCCOS rejected claims the rifles were the wrong weapon for the job. The “patrol rifles,” said the spokesperson, are “more suited to the unpredictable nature of the job,” one that requires them to defend themselves from “a charging bear or other predator species.” 

Pacific Wild said it discovered the use of the rifles through a number of freedom of information requests. Those documents revealed those involved in the province's wolf cull program were using .308 semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity 30-round magazines. Pacific Wild says the 30-round magazines are prohibited for civilian possession and use.  

The BCCOS spokesperson did not answer a question over how civilian contractors were being armed to cull wolves, instead saying the service “is not involved in shooting wolves through the provincial predator reduction program.”

When it comes to conservation officers, Pacific Wild claimed in its letter that calling the gun a “patrol rifle” disguises the nature of the weapon. In other words, said the environmental group, the BCCOS is misleading the government and public, and “setting the stage for a military upgrade.”

In this file photo, conservation officer Wyatt Pile holds a rifle while responding to reports of a bear near a public pool in Coquitlam, B.C. Pacific Wild says the service has traded in such hunting rifles for new firearms that should be classified as a military-grade weapon. - Diane Strandberg/Tri-City News

The letter points to a photograph posted to the BCCOS’s Twitter account in September, which shows one officer holding one of the new rifles. 

The BCCOS spokesperson did not confirm what firearm the officer is holding in the photo, instead stating the service has “utilized patrol rifles for more than two years” as a standard-issue firearm. As a force of special provincial constables, they “are permitted to use firearms that might otherwise be prohibited for civilians,” he added.

Pacific Wild also raised concerns over the deployment of the new patrol rifles in urban areas, such as the Lower Mainland, and during interactions with the public.

Some off-duty officers are even taking the weapons and high-capacity magazines home instead of storing them in a secure government facility, claims the group.

“You’re bringing your hunting rifle home for work, that’s one thing; you go buy military-style assault rifles, that’s a whole other conversation,” Casavant told Glacier Media. 

The spokesperson did not address claims over whether conservation officers were taking the weapons home, nor did he respond to questions raised by Pacific Wild over their use in urban areas. 

“As peace officers, the COS voluntarily complies with the same firearms training standards that meet or exceed other law enforcement agencies in Canada,” the spokesperson said.

Prohibition, recall warranted, says Pacific Wild

In its letter, Pacific Wild called on the government to prohibit BCCOS officers from using the new rifles while conducting general duty operations. The rifles and magazines, says the group, should be immediately recalled and stored in government storage facilities authorized and inspected by the RCMP.

Casavant says even the RCMP's Emergency Response Team is not normally allowed to take their weapons home. Such a policy, he says, would at least secure the weapons when officers are off-duty.

Officers from Port Moody police and the BC Conservation Officer Service, track a bear in the city's greenbelt, Aug. 1, 2019. Carrying previously issued rifles, the BCCOS officers put the neighbourhood into semi-lockdown as they searched for a mother bear and her three cubs. MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS

The group also asked Eby and the Office of the Premier to create plain language regulations to define classes of weapons bought and used by public services staff. 

Pacific Wild’s suggested definition of a military-style weapon: “A rifle or carbine designed and manufactured with intention for use in modern military combat operations, whether fully automatic or not. This includes, but is not limited to, ‘AR’-style weapons platforms, patrol carbines, patrol rifles, and assault-style weapons, including semi-automatic military-grade rifles.”

The group also reiterated its request for BCCOS officers to wear body cameras and for the establishment of a civilian watchdog to oversee the constabulary service.

“Instead of body cameras and greater transparency, the public is presented with assault-style rifles and further paramilitarization,” wrote the group.

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