A black bear took refuge at the Discovery Harbour Marina Sept. 8. Photo by Brad Drake

Complaint filed over black bear shooting at Campbell River marina

A complaint has been laid about the way a Conservation Officer handled a bear on the loose at the Discovery Harbour Marina on Sept. 8.

Gosia Bryja, who filed a Conservation Officer complaint form on Sept. 15 and sent a copy of it to the Campbell River Mirror, said the situation could have been handled in a non-lethal way.

“I strongly believe that close cooperation with the public would have been the key to resolve the situation,” Bryja said.

On Friday, Sept. 8, a “medium-sized” black bear was first spotted on the marina breakwater in the morning, looking tired, leading to speculation that it might have been swimming in Discovery Passage, perhaps even trying to cross to Quadra Island. Either that, or it came out of the Campbell River estuary, which is just north of the marina. But sometime later, the bear got up and swam to the dock at the Discovery Harbour Marina and began running up and down the quays, becoming increasingly agitated, Conservation Officer Sgt. Mike Newton said.

Newton said the bear was getting increasingly annoyed with Sgt. Newton following him, and became very aggressive to the Conservation Officer. In the interest of public safety, Sgt. Newton said he elected to put the bear down.

That decision, as they often are in these cases, was critized by many online readers of the Campbell River Mirror and on social media.

Bryja, an environmental scientist and wildlife conservationist, disagrees that the bear needed to be shot.

“Video evidence, however, is not consistent with Officer Mike Newton’s suggestion that the bear was ‘very aggressive,’” she says in her complaint. “I participated in various research projects related to habitat use and behaviour of black bears. I spent a lot of time observing and interacting with black bears in diverse situations and environments.

“In this specific case, while watching the video footage, I could clearly see that the bear’s body movement was showing no signs of threatening or aggressive behaviour but rather, signs of confusion.”

The bear was lost, stressed out and looking for a way out, Bryja says. “Media reports also suggest that the bear looked tired. If Officer Mike Newton had been properly trained in bear behaviour, he should have been able to get the bear off the docks and escort him to a safe place away from the public. He should have also requested a back up. Still, no real attempts were made to help the bear get out of this stressful situation.”

Bryja said she is filing the complaint because she believes the Standards of Counduct for BC Public Service were violated. She adds that she believes the animal was killed unnecessarily, bringing the government into disrepute. She also expresses concern that a firearm was discharged within a community when other options were available.

Bryja has also asked the Conservation Officer Service (COS) for a copy of its internal professional code of conduct for officers.

When contacted by the Mirror about the complaint, a statement from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy was issued, saying it would be inappropriate for the COS to comment on open public complaints regarding the quality of the organization’s service to the community or its administrative or operational policies and procedures.

It says, any member of the public can make a complaint about the conduct of a conservation officer, the quality of the organization’s service to the community, or its policies and procedures, by completing a COS complaint form, which can be found online.

The COS Complaints Policy outlines the policy of the Conservation Officer Service in regards to complaints received, including the process following the submission of a complaint, and how the complaint is investigated. It is available online as well.

Last month, it was reported that there has been a significant increase in the number of black bear conflict reports in British Columbia compared to last year. Chris Doyle, the deputy chief with B.C. Conservation Officer Services, told Black Press that black bear-related calls have nearly doubled this year over last year in the province.

He said 8,900 black bear conflict reports have been issued to the COS since April 1, compared to 4,900 in the same time last year.

The increase in bear/human incidents comes almost a year after the province updated its policy for dealing with wild animals that come into conflict with humans. The Ministry of Environment’s policy update removed long-distance translocation of a wild animal— trapping, moving and releasing — as a preferred method of deterring them from human interaction.

Doyle said conservation officers only use translocation under certain circumstances. The COS has only translocated two black bears since April, 2017, according to the department’s statistics.

“Translocation is not viewed as a successful outcome for human/wildlife conflict,” said Doyle. “In general, what we see is that the bears will return from translocation or they may not survive in the location they’re taken to. It’s something we use very seldom.”

Instead of translocation, conservation officers should use various aversion methods on wild animals to promote negative associations with humans. These include hazing, rubber bullets, electric shock and foul-tasting chemicals, among other ways.

However, if those techniques are not effective the animal can be put down, in compliance with the B.C. Wildlife Act.

“It’s not something a CO wants to do,” said Doyle, referring to bears being put down. “It’s certainly something we work hard at trying to prevent. But when a bear is destroyed it’s ultimately because a bear has become habituated to a different food condition and is a risk to public safety, causing property damage and also maybe predatory towards livestock or domestic animals.”

Bryja said the CO in the Sept. 8 Campbell River situation could have diffused the situation that had the bear feeling cornered and stressed out. He should have asked the bystanders to stay calm and slowly back away, giving the bear some space. Then, he could focus on the bear and calm it down by talking softly to it.

“Once feeling safe, the bear would have left the place in peace,” Bryja said. “However, the bear felt danger because of the officer’s threatening body language which, in all likelihood, led to the unfortunate outcome.”

– with files from the Comox Valley Record

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