Conservation Officer Service - 100 Years of Service
1980-2005, A Modern Law Enforcement Agency
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The complexities and demands of a Conservation Officer’s job have grown dramatically over the past 100 years. The past two decades, in particular, have seen the modernization of the Conservation Officer Service and the emergence of a highly skilled and professional agency. There have been a number of driving factors, not least of which include:
- an ever-expanding and complex environmental enforcement mandate,
- increased protection of basic rights and freedoms, as guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and
- increased sophistication of the criminal element.
Many of the changes to the Conservation Officer Service and its approach to law enforcement have mirrored those in modern policing, including technological and organizational developments in: communications; transportation; criminal identification; intelligence gathering; officer safety; and accountability.
The agency is currently responsible for over 20 provincial and federal environmental statutes. Additionally, the COS remains the lead agency responsible for managing wildlife-human conflicts where human health and safety are at risk. The motto, “Integrity, Service and Protection”, sums up in simple terms how the Service handles these many complex and evolving responsibilities.
Timeline of Key Events
The Conservation Officer Service was established as a separate branch within the Ministry of Environment – the first time in its history that the enforcement branch would operate as a distinct entity from fish and wildlife.
Reinforcing the separation between natural resources management and environmental law enforcement, the primary duties of the newly established Service were:
- enforcement of provincial and federal environmental legislation, and
- problem wildlife control.
These duties remain central to the COS to this day.
Today’s familiar blue/grey uniform was introduced, replacing the previous khaki and green, and the era of the “Blue Shirts” had begun. The purpose of the new uniforms was to better distinguish Conservation Officers from other Ministry staff and have CO attire resemble that worn by other law enforcement agencies.
The need for a unique, police-style uniform had been identified in a 1977 review of the former Fish and Game Branch. The report recommended that:
“the present uniform, indistinguishable from delivery men, service station attendant[s] and prison guards, be changed to a distinctive style and colour and of a material, at least for field use, that will remain smart under adverse working conditions.”
A basic law enforcement course was introduced in 1980 and made mandatory for all conservation officers.
The Wildlife Act was revised and COs were no longer automatically designated as special police constables (SPC) as they had been under the Wildlife Act (1966), and before that, under the Game Act (1914).
Conservation Officers now received SPC appointments under the Police Act, the intent of which was summarized as follows:
“The appointment will be only for the purpose of delivering Court documents, executing warrants issued for Ministry legislation and enforcing those sections of the Criminal Code dealing with weapon restriction[s] directly related to the functions of a CO.”
Conservation Officer sidearms were standardized. Officers were issued Smith & Wesson model 681, .357 calibre revolvers and Sam Browne black leather duty belts with flap holsters.
Some officers had previously carried sidearms but make, calibre and training varied greatly.
||The first in-service Field Orientation Manual was introduced. The purpose of the manual was to provide a systematic and standardized field training program for recruit Conservation Officers.
The first female field duty Conservation Officer, Barbara E. Leslie, was hired in March, 1987, at the district office in Squamish.
||In response to the growing complexity of environmental investigations, specialized Environmental Enforcement Units (EEUs) were established - 11 new officers were stationed strategically throughout the province to monitor, inspect and investigate industrial and municipal waste discharges.
A Special Investigations Unit (SIU) was created. Comprised of 3 Conservation Officers, the SIU was set up to focus on illegal activities deemed to have the greatest impact on BC’s environmental resources.
SIU officers work undercover for the purpose of infiltrating illegal, commercialized activities at the highest level – operations that are not easily investigated by uniformed COS staff.
Body armour becomes standard issue. As well, COs were converted to Cordura-style duty belts and thumb break holsters to replace the old flap holster.
||Registered Detector Dog Renko, used to detect bear galls, wildlife parts and firearms, is stationed in Surrey with handler CO Ralph Krenz.
||The Conservation Officer Service reached its peak staffing level, at 154 officers.
Due to the expanding mandate of the Conservation Officer Service, a number of important changes in program policy, procedure, equipment and training were initiated during this period – no more so than around an officer’s training in the lawful use of force.
In addition to routine, uniformed patrols and investigations, conservation officers were more often engaged in complex and high-risk law enforcement activities. In the course of conducting their duties, various statutory authorities empower Conservation Officers to:
- enter private land
- conduct inspections
- conduct surveillance, including undercover operations
- interview suspects
- search people, premises and vehicles
- detain or arrest individuals
- seize property
- cultivate sources of information, including confidential informants, and
- initiate legal processes which can lead to significant monetary penalties and/or jail time.
As a product of these authorities, conservation officers are lawfully empowered to use as much force as is reasonably necessary to gain compliance with the law and/or protect themselves or another person.
In order to ensure public and officer safety, and manage the complex challenges of environmental enforcement, COs are now provided with professional defensive tactics training.
In addition to the use of force, and the potential requirement to control an unruly or hostile suspect, conservation officers must be ready to:
- handle various heavy equipment, such as an ATV or snowmobile
- lift, carry or drag an animal carcass
- pursue problem wildlife on foot, often in challenging terrain, or
- pursue a suspect on foot.
In recognition of the need for conservation officers to possess and maintain the necessary standard of fitness, the COS implemented a pre-employment Physical Abilities Test for Conservation Officers (PATCO).
The physical testing of new recruits ensures new officers are able to reasonably and competently exercise their duties when required and with the appropriate standard of care.
Revolvers as service weapons were retired. As part of a larger policy to modernize the COS, officers were now issued .40 calibre, semi-automatic Glock pistols for field duty use - a more reliable and effective tool in terms of officer and public safety.
At the same time, COs were required to wear their sidearms at all times while on duty. This contrasted markedly with 1979 program policy which put limitations on when and where sidearms could be worn.
The Conservation Officer Service and the position of Chief Conservation Officer, who once again had complete supervision over the Service, were officially established in legislation under amendments to the Environment Management Act.
Mark A. Hayden was appointed Chief Conservation Officer and now had the authority to designate conservation officers, auxiliary conservation officers (within the ministry), and special conservation officers (external agencies).
Chief Hayden was the first Chief CO since Charlie Estlin (1962) to have come up through the ranks of the COS.
A provincial call centre was established to route urgent environmental enforcement issues and problem wildlife complaints. Office meetings between members of the public and the COS were moved to a “by appointment” arrangement.
The “sky blue” uniform shirts, introduced in 1980 when the Conservation Officer Service was first established in name, were replaced by an “LAPD” navy blue shirt – the same style worn by a number of municipal police forces.
In support of its visual identity program, the Service introduced new shoulder flashes and hat badges, as well as a plan to outfit distinctively marked patrol vehicles. Previously, there had been little difference between CO patrol vehicles and those driven by non-enforcement staff.
In 2004, the COS was granted its own Armorial Bearings by the Chief Herald of Canada. The Conservation Officer Service is the only provincial government agency to have armorial bearings, although many municipal polices have had their own for years.
On May 30th, 2005, the COS hired 13 seasonal conservation officers, including 3 Bear Response Officers - the first time in over 30 years the agency has implemented a seasonal employment program.
Seasonal COs have been deployed in districts throughout the province and will be in the field throughout the summer and fall, providing additional resources for the busy angling, hunting and summer seasons.
A Wildlife/Human Conflict Co-ordinator position has also been added to the Service, responsible for coordinating Ministry resources and activities aimed at conflict prevention.
July 1st, 2005, marks the 100th Anniversary of the appointment of the first Provincial Game and Forest Warden, Arthur Bryan Williams. At present, there are 120 regional conservation officer positions in the Service, stationed in 44 locations province-wide (excludes Headquarters staff).
Surely Williams would be amazed if he could see the successor to his department's early efforts. While much has changed since 1905, officers, both past and present, continue to share the same passionate commitment to protecting BC’s natural resources.
Please see the Conservation Officer Service Homepage for a more detailed description of the Service today.