BC conservation group Pacific Wild has written an open letter to premier-designate David Eby asking him to address what it calls the paramilitarization of the BC Conservation Officer Service (BCCOS) and Ministry of Forests.
The author of the letter, Bryce Casavant, is a former conservation officer (CO) who was fired in 2015 for refusing to cull two orphaned bear cubs near Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
He later south the province to get his job back and his lost pay returned.
In the letter, Casavant says conservation officers’ hunting rifles have been replaced with what he calls assault-style rifles. An access to information (FOI) request by the organization shows a similar rifle, with 30-round magazines, has been used in the province’s ongoing wolf cull.
“The use of these rifles, coupled with the prohibited 30-round magazine, is a very serious matter,” he told CBC News. “I think [a] recall is warranted for the protection of wildlife, for the protection of the public and for the protection of the officers themselves.”
Over the past two years, Casavant has pressed the province to provide greater transparency in provincial environmental law enforcement and called for body cameras to be worn by all front-line BCCOS officers.
In the open letter dated Oct. 25, Pacific Wild called out the government over the use of firearms it described as semi-automatic and intended for military use.
“The use, possession and deployment of these weapons suggests to the public that the province is paramilitarizing our wildlife conservation services,” it said.
“This situation now presents a reasonable probability of escalating officer use of force on non-human species and contributing to greater ministry and government liabilities in the long-term.”
The FOI request, which Pacific Wild shared with media outlets including CBC News, details protocols and procedures for killing wolves as part of a cull announced in 2015 to prevent the further decline of caribou populations.
Since 2015, the BC government has facilitated the cull of wolves in several regions of the province to help conserve caribou populations. (Wildlife Infometrics)
BC’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services said in an email to CBC News that the FOI was legitimate but had yet to be posted on the province’s open information page due to a system issue.
One section of the document details how a worker or contractor would use a “.308 semi-automatic rifle equipped with extended 30-round magazines using a red-dot scope for quick and accurate target acquisition” to cull wolves from a helicopter.
In general, individuals in Canada must not possess magazines that hold more than five to 10 cartridges, depending on the weapon.
In 2020, Canada banned licensed gun owners from selling, transporting, importing or using some 1,500 makes and models of military-grade and “assault-style” weapons.
Casavant says the weapon described in the wolf cull FOI is the same one now issued to BC conservation officers.
He said an officer posing for a picture posted on the service’s Twitter page on Sept. 25 has one of the rifles on his shoulder.
An independent arms and ammunition store in Vancouver told CBC News that the rifle in the picture appears to be a .308 caliber AR Platform Modern Sporting Rifle. It said the weapon is common in Canada and used for hunting, sport and law enforcement.
Pacific Wild says it’s concerned officers aren’t receiving adequate training to use the weapons and may be storing them at home, which Casavant believes is risky.
“We’re essentially creating a recipe for disaster, putting not just the public at risk, but we’re also downloading a tremendous amount of responsibility to the officers, which I find unacceptable.”
In a statement to CBC News, the BCCOS does not say the exact type of rifle its front-line officers are now using.
It said that over the course of a two-year pilot project, it replaced rifles geared more toward hunting, some of which were 30 years old, with what it calls “patrol rifles.”
“COs are often in situations where circumstances can change quickly, and the patrol rifle is more suited to the unpredictable nature of the job,” said the statement. “The patrol rifle improves officer and public safety by replacing outdated firearms.”
The BCCOS is the primary first responder agency for human-wildlife conflicts and predator attacks.
“Conservation officers face dynamic and fluid circumstances in all types of weather — such as a charging bear or other predator species — and require a firearm best suited to the task of defending themselves.”
Casavant said officers previously used a .306 bolt-action rifle with an internal five-round magazine. Officers would have to action the bolt to fire the rifle once, whereas the new weapons fire a bullet each time the trigger is pulled.
The service did not elaborate on the training officers received for the new patrol rifles but said the COS voluntarily complied with the same firearms training standards “that meet or exceed other law enforcement agencies in Canada.”
The service also said it follows all regulations and policies for the handling and storage of firearms. It did not say if officers were storing the weapons at home.
In Canada, non-restricted firearms must be fitted with a locking device for storage so they cannot be fired, or be locked in a cabinet, container or room.
Conservation officers are not involved in shooting wolves through the provincial predator reduction program.
As for the weapon mentioned in the FOI requested by Pacific Wild regarding the province’s wolf cull, BC’s Ministry of Land, Water and Resource Stewardship said in a statement to CBC News that the type of firearms used is “based on science and sound wildlife management principles .”
It said contractors and ministry staff use common hunting firearms “that are chambered in calibers like .223, .308, or 7.62 x 39, and come standard with five-round magazines.”
The statement also said the firearms can be fitted with extended magazines “if approved by a federal Chief Firearms Officer.”
“And that has been the case in at least one instance,” said the ministry statement.
“Circumstances occasionally require quick actions, and the availability of additional rounds can support better efficiency and humaneness without the need for changing or reloading magazines.”