Kelly Firth and Chris Genovali: B.C.'s human-wildlife conflict response needs reform

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      By Kelly Firth and Chris Genovali

      Recent events have raised important legal questions about the policies, practices, and procedures of the British Columbia Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS) for responding to human-wildlife conflicts.

      This past summer was marked by multiple encounters involving people and black bears in the Lower Mainland, with accompanying BCCOS-related controversy as well. In a high-profile incident in Coquitlam, a mother black bear and her two cubs were killed in a disputed lethal control action while neighbourhood residents were concurrently arrested for allegedly interfering with conservation officers.

      The aforementioned case and other instances that have garnered significant media attention and public ire over the last few years suggest officers may be killing more wild animals than necessary and subsequently undermining confidence in the BCCOS.

      British Columbia’s current wildlife enforcement agency model is problematic in several ways.

      First, relevant legislation confers overly broad discretion to conservation officers. Strong policy direction must exist to guide the exercise of this discretion. 

      However, the policy that guides the BCCOS’s response to human-wildlife conflict is weak—and the recent media scrutiny mentioned above suggest that the government’s direction does not align with public expectations.

      Second, despite being a law enforcement agency, the agency lacks public accountability. There is no independent oversight of conservation officers’ actions or the BCCOS’s policies as a whole. As a result, there are no opportunities for members of the public to express concerns to an independent body about officers’ actions if they perceive those actions to be inappropriate.

      Complaints are made to the BCCOS directly and any investigations that it deems necessary are conducted internally. This is both unusual and inappropriate for an armed law enforcement agency that frequently interacts with the public.

      In fact, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice determined that the fact that the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)’s officers exercise police powers but are not subject to independent oversight is a breach of a principle of fundamental justice.

      Since 2011 the BCCOS has reported killing 3,314 black bears, 103 grizzly bears, and 590 cougars. As development and destruction of habitat continues throughout British Columbia, these species are pushed closer to human populations. Having a robust policy framework in place for addressing human-wildlife conflict is essential. This framework must be based on sound science and must balance protecting public safety and protecting wildlife.

      British Columbia should take the lead to proactively prevent the unnecessary killing of wildlife by adopting a more restrained approach to the use of lethal force. Maintaining officer discretion when responding to human-wildlife conflict will always be necessary for protecting the public. However, discretion and authority should be accompanied by oversight—absolutely essential to maintain public confidence in the BCCOS.

      The purpose of a new report, commissioned by Raincoast Conservation Foundation and produced by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, is to propose law and policy reforms that would enhance wildlife management by increasing the accountability of the BCCOS as a whole and reducing the unnecessary killing of wildlife by conservation officers.

      Drawing from aspects of wildlife management regimes in other jurisdictions, the report, titled Reform Proposals for Managing Human-Wildlife Conflict in British Columbia, provides several reform options.

      First, the provincial government should improve its internal policies for handling human-wildlife conflict to reflect a more restrained approach to using lethal force and a better understanding of the science of wildlife behaviour, as well as the concept of co-existence, which by the way is the theme of this year’s B.C. Bear Day. Ideally, cabinet would pass a regulation incorporating these guidelines in order to make them legally enforceable.

      Second, the province should introduce independent oversight of the BCCOS. As demonstrated by other jurisdictions, this may be accomplished by a variety of means.

      We recommend that the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner (OPCC) oversee the BCCOS. The OPCC already has a mandate and the expertise to oversee law enforcement agencies.

      Alternatively, the Environmental Appeal Board may be tasked with hearing appeals of decisions made by the BCCOS regarding public complaints. At a minimum, the existing public complaint process itself must be more transparent and accessible to the public.  

      This report sets out the rationale, benefits, and potential drawbacks of each proposal. A combination of better guidelines for responding to human-wildlife conflict and third-party oversight would be ideal to prevent unnecessary wildlife deaths and restore public confidence in the BCCOS.

      Kelly Firth is a JD candidate and former law student at the UVic Environmental Law Centre. Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Bear Day is on Sunday (September 22), which includes a series of events at the Shipyards in the Lower Lonsdale area of the City of North Vancouver.