Conservation officers are caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place when it comes to problem wildlife.
On the one hand, the officers are supposed to be protecting wildlife and wildlife values. On the other, the officers are supposed to be protecting people.
Sometimes, the officers have to destroy wildlife to protect people.
“It’s just erring on the side of caution,” said Sgt. Josh Lockwood, of North Okanagan conservation services, a 32-year veteran of both law enforcement and being a conservation officer.
“No matter what we do, there’s the two sides,” added officer Tanner Beck, who transferred to the North Okanagan from Vancouver Island where he dealt with numerous cougar complaints. “People ask us to come get rid of a bear or somebody’s going to get killed, or they’ll say ‘don’t touch that bear, let it live free.’ It comes from both sides, no matter what we do.”
Local conservation officers – and there are just two that serve a 48,000 square mile radius from Greater Vernon to the Needles Ferry and 18 kilometres this side of Revelstoke – have come under heat, scrutiny and online attack this month after destroying two cougars in Coldstream.
One was shot after it was trapped following numerous reports of the animal being seen, including near an elementary school. The other was killed in Lavington after the cougar attacked and killed two goats.
A third cougar seen walking through a Coldstream neighbourhood and, again, within 100 metres of an elementary school, has not been trapped.
A decision to put down wildlife, said Lockwood, is based on the number of complaints the department receives, the animal’s behaviour and based on information conservation officers receive.
In 2013, the local conservation office received more than 1,600 problem wildlife complaints, including 69 cougars, none of which were destroyed. Each complaint is assessed by officers as they come in.
“If we have a case of a bear running across a road, it’s just a sighting and we’re not going to attend,” said Lockwood. “But if it’s, say, a bear in a school yard, we’re going to respond and an officer is going to attend to make sure the bear’s not in the school yard, and educate the school.”
The cougar trapped and killed near Kinloch Drive in Coldstream had a necropsy performed after death. Inside the cat’s stomach was dog hair. Proof that the animal had eaten a domestic house pet and quite likely killed the dog itself.
Officers carry out decisions that are made by people in Victoria who have master’s degrees in biology and are very familiar with large carnivores.
“Those policies and procedures we carry out are set by senior biologists,” said Lockwood. “It’s based on science, not emotion.”
People tend to get very emotional when wildlife is destroyed in a suburban habitat.
Case in point: a deer that was caught on video nuzzling up to a young boy at a Coldstream beach in the summer of 2013 was splashed on YouTube and had more than 14,000 views. The same deer was photographed by residents – including what Lockwood called “one despicable photo” with the deer having a gold chain, sunglasses and ball hat to make it look gangster – being petted by humans and was confirmed to have got its antler caught in a jacket of a student at an elementary school.
The deer was shot and killed by officers, which led to outcries from the public, e-mail threats to the principal of the elementary school who was blamed for alerting conservation officers about the deer, and to the children of a conservation officer being harassed by adults.
“You know, we could easily resolve a cougar or bear conflict and the media would never hear about it. We don’t hide behind that,” said Lockwood, who said he took it upon himself to become the local media spokesperson following the bullying incident to one of his member’s kids. “We are forefront. We do not lie to the public. We do not lie to the media. Does it create controversy? Absolutely, because people have uninformed expert opinions.”
That would also include people wanting officers to tranquilize problem animals and translocate (conservation jargon for moving them) the animals to another area.
The scientists in Victoria have determined that translocating animals is not a sound practice. One bear translocated from Nakusp to Beaverdell ended up killing a $7,000 stud ram.
There’s also the matter of the drugs officers use to tranquilize wildlife, which are experimental, certified by the USDA. Lockwood said there is no scientific proof those drugs are not carcinogenic.
“Should we tranquilize a deer and move it, and that deer is shot and consumed by a lawful harvest, are we creating a cancer situation down the road?” said Lockwood. “We don’t have an answer to that so we err on the side of public safety.”
Lockwood said he’s fine taking the heat from the public. He’s been called a murderer. He’s been threatened with lawsuits. He’s been chastised more, he figures, for not attending a wildlife call.
“If people want to hate me, I’m OK with that,” he said. “But you know, I get more letters and e-mails supporting what we do. The other day a guy bought me a coffee in a coffee shop and said ‘good job.’ That’s why I do what I do.”