KAMLOOPS – After witnessing one of his tracking dogs killed and another injured by a cougar, conservation officer Kevin Van Damme will not soon forget the way it all went down, nor the effect it will have on the program he has worked hard to create.
Van Damme was out with dogs Bust and Boomer tracking an injured cougar at the end of December when the cougar turned on the dogs, fatally wounding Bust and injuring Boomer. He ended up carrying Bust back to his vehicle while an injured Boomer trailed along beside him. At one point he also had to help Boomer out of a creek after the animal fell through the ice, his efforts encumbered by the bleeding dog in his arms.
Boomer has since recovered physically but has yet to tackle cougar tracking again while his owner tries to determine if he is mentally ready for his work. Van Damme notes serious altercations like this can make dogs, even dogs bred and trained for tracking, too wary of cougars to engage while in the field.
Boomer has been with Van Damme for several years while Bust arrived this past March as part of the program he fought so hard for. Bust was one of only two specially trained dogs with the B.C. Conservation Officer Service and was trained alongside another dog from Arizona that now works in Cranbrook.
“It's a tremendous loss, (Bust) brought skills and everything we needed,” Van Damme says, “We travelled around province last year.”
The two dogs were specifically purchased to help assist in resolving cougar conflicts and while some officers had previously used their own dogs, and many still do, these two dogs were specially trained as part of a two year pilot program meant to not only help in conflict scenarios but to also keep officers from using up all their free time training their personal pets for the job.
Van Damme first wrote a proposal for the canine program six years ago and says the goal is to ultimately have four units in the province located where the majority of conflicts occur—on the Island, the Mainland, the Kootenays and in Kamloops. This will allow the teams to quickly respond to dangerous situations in the province.
The pilot program allows for two dogs, one in Kamloops and one in Cranbrook, but with the loss of Bust the program is down to just one. Officers like Van Damme will continue to use their personal dogs in the field. He has used them throughout his 20-year career in conservation, but the hope is to find another trained dog to replace Bust in the near future.
“At one time we had a number of full time officers with a team of dogs that responded to conflicts around the province. In this day and age we don't have any specialized officers,” he notes. “I can't spend all my time training, I'm a regular duty officer tasked with all the responsibilities of a regular duty officer.”
These specially trained conservation dogs spend the first four years of their life in training, which involves regular tracking expeditions. An appropriate handler/officer needs to be found as well, not an easy feat with less than 80 officers in the entire province. Van Damme notes it takes the right skill set to carry the training forward and be a successful handler. And, as a small agency the resources are more limited when it comes to both personnel and finances.
Currently the dog teams respond whenever there's a difficult conflict for officers to deal with and that often requires teams to arrive at the site by 4 a.m. As a leader of the predator attack team and an expert in predator attack investigations, Van Damme is very involved in these situations, even when he is not attending with his dogs.
The loss of Bust comes at a time when there appears to be an increase in cougar conflicts in the region as well. Van Damme says the last time he was this busy with human-wildlife conflicts was in the mid-90s. Calls for service have been very high, especially for cougar conflicts.
In the past several days three cougars have posed safety concerns in the Coldstream area near Vernon. Two have already been killed by conservation officers and a search is on for the third.
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