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HELSTON: Don't be afraid to call the conservation officer

Charlotte Helston is the Vernon reporter for InfoNews.
October 10, 2014 - 7:04 AM

Residents across the Interior contacted the conservation service over the past year to report wildlife encounters ranging from simple sightings to bizarre and in some cases, tragic extremes. There was a cougar found inside a Vernon home chewing on a squeaky toy, a pack of wolves that killed a woman’s dog in Merritt, aggressive coyotes that attacked a dog walker, and a cougar that decapitated a dog in the North Okanagan.

Those are just some of the thousands of reports conservation officers in the region received, but what about the ones they didn’t hear about, precisely due to the perceived nature of their work?

Last winter I ran into a bear while walking in my backyard—which, because I live in the country, is a seemingly endless patchwork of farmers fields and swaths of forest. The bear, clearly peeved at being awoken from its slumber by my dog, advanced on me for one terrifying moment, and then we both slowly backed away from one another. I was reluctant to call conservation because I didn’t want it to get killed. But while I was concerned for the safety of the bear, my husband was focused on mine and made the call.

The officers arrived wearing safety vests and toting guns. I expected a bear would die that day, but after taking a look around, the officers surprised me. “Keep a wide berth around the den and give the bear space,” I was told. And while they may have changed my mind that day about reporting wildlife encounters, I wonder how many people fear a call to conservation will result in the killing of an animal.

We know a number of wildlife sightings don’t get reported to conservation. You only have to take a look at the WildSafeBC alert reporting system to know that. There are reports on there conservation officers tell us they’ve never heard of. Every time we run a story about a wild animal being put down by conservation, readers leave numerous comments with not-so-nice words about the service. Would they pick up the phone and contact conservation with a wildlife report? I’m not so sure they would.

It’s important to remember the conservation officers who shoot threatening wildlife are the same people who patrol lakes, ensuring boaters use fish-friendly lures; the same people who look over rec sites to ensure ATVs aren’t tearing up animal habitats; the same people who work with rehabilitation centres to return animals to the wild, because they do relocate some animals. Killing an animal isn’t their first choice, but we so often hear only of the extreme encounters—the ones that leave no other choice—that stereotypes are perpetuated. But just think, if conservation officers get an earful about shooting a cougar, imagine the backlash if they didn’t and it escalated from hunting pets to stalking children?

Of 186 cougar complaints since April 1 in the North Okanagan area alone, conservation put down seven cougars. Officials admit it’s been a busy cougar year, but the number of complaints versus dead cougars has to put things in perspective. They’re not going out and shooting every big cat that gets called in.

Notifying the conservation service of a wildlife sighting is important: it allows officers to put out alerts to nearby residents if need be, and helps them understand trends in animal behaviour. It lets them know when they need to remind the public about minimizing attractants—such as garbage, barbecues, and unpicked fruit trees.

We live in the Thompson-Okanagan, not downtown Vancouver. We know our chances of running into wildlife are higher than in other communities. So, what will you do next time you encounter a wild animal?

To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at chelston@infotelnews.ca or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email mjones@infotelnews.ca or call 250-718-2724.

News from © iNFOnews, 2014

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