Bear kills prompt call for more oversight, including body cameras for officers

An Island-based environmental group is calling for oversight of provincial conservation officers after more than 500 black bears and 26 grizzlies were killed in B.C. last year, according to government statistics.

Pacific Wild sent an open letter to George Heyman, minister of environment and climate change, asking for conservation officers to wear body cameras and install dash cameras in their vehicles. The group would also like to see an independent body investigate complaints against officers.

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“It’s about accountability,” said Bryce Casavant, a policy analyst at Pacific Wild and a former conservation officer. Casavant was suspended from the service in 2015 after refusing to kill two bear cubs whose mother he put down in Port Hardy.

“It’s sort of this grey area where we have police officers, essentially provincial police officers, that don’t have any civilian oversight,” he said.

According to the province, conservation officers have put down 4,341 black bears, 162 grizzly bears and 780 cougars in the past eight years.

Casavant called the numbers “alarming.”

Without video footage of conservation officers’ interactions with wildlife it’s impossible to know what is happening in the field, Casavant said.

He said body cameras would allow for review of incidents in which animals are killed, to determine whether officers acted reasonably.

“But it can also go the other way, where you review the audio or footage and you’re like: ‘Well, no, that officer was out of line,’ ” he said.

The open letter comes after a December statement from the ministry in which Heyman said killing an animal is always a last resort for conservation officers.

Casavant is skeptical, saying it’s unreasonable to believe that more than 4,000 black bears were killed over eight years as a last resort.

He said the province issued its statement after specific complaints were brought to the minister about the service.

“Some of the correspondence that he was provided was directly counter to what the Conservation Officer Service has been saying publicly,” he said.

That’s why Casavant believes an independent oversight body is needed to respond to complaints and review officers’ behaviour in the field.

Heyman was unavailable for comment.

In an emailed statement, the ministry said the Conservation Officer Service received more than 20,000 calls related to conflicts with bears in 2019.

“Conservation officers are dedicated to protecting and preserving wildlife and always consider all options before euthanizing an animal,” the ministry said.

regan-elliott@timescolonist.com

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