They are the front line protectors of the environment in a region that prides itself on its wealth of unspoiled nature.
And for Sgt. Scott Norris, it’s the best job in the world.
“I’ve done this job for 17 years now, and I can’t imagine a job I’d rather be doing,” Norris said.
“I get to see a lot of country that others don’t get to see. I have a love for the outdoors and a passion to protect the environment, so what could be better?”
In fact, the role of a conservation officer is an amalgam of many roles that include natural resource law enforcement, managing human and wildlife conflicts, and complex commercial environmental and industrial investigations.
“One of the most memorable cases I was involved in was when the Kinder Morgan pipeline was hit by a digging crew and ended up with several hundred thousand litres of oil in the ocean. I was part of that investigation. Charges were laid and our work played a big part in that situation.”
Of course, Norris and the four other officers whose responsibilities encompass a massive area that includes the entire South Island region, get their share of bear calls.
“The frustrating thing is that the problems are a people-driven issue,” Norris said.
“Garbage is left out and bears become habituated to human-based food sources. By the time we get called, there’s sometimes not a lot we can do.”
That’s when conservation officers are required to perform their least favourite part of the job – euthanizing an animal.
“People think we can trap the bear and drive it 20 kilometres down the road, but these are very intelligent animals with a sense of smell that’s better than a bloodhound’s. We can move them away, but they will return to a human food source almost immediately,” Norris said.
“We don’t have much choice, but anytime I have to pull that trigger, I feel awful. It’s not what I got into this business to do.”
Thankfully, although it garners much of the attention in the media, only a small number of animals are killed in relation to the number of calls received by the conservation service.
Norris said other predators, including cougars and wolves, are common on the South Island, but rarely get as much press as they are more timid in nature.
“These are carnivores and, unlike bears, they have one type of food on the menu. They have to be taken seriously. They will eat pets, livestock, and even attack humans on very rare occasions.”
Even deer can be dangerous if cornered, Norris said.
“They’re big animals and if threatened they can go up on their back legs and strike out and do a lot of damage.”
But potentially, the most dangerous encounters facing conservation officers are with humans.
Norris said he and other officers are extremely careful about confronting armed poachers and will call for back up if the situation warrants it.
“We get people poaching elk, fishing out of season, night hunting – we see it all. And yes, sometimes that can be dangerous for us.”
Still, the job isn’t without its humorous aspects.
“Bears are the source of a lot of funny stories. They are incredibly smart and sometimes we’ll get a call that a bear has been hanging around for weeks, but the second we step out of the truck and they see our uniform, they high-tail it into the bush,” Norris said.
“We’ve had to disguise ourselves, wearing a civilian coat or jacket over our uniform and parking our truck a long way away and walking in, just to fool them.”
But regardless of whether conservation officers are chasing a cougar out of the Empress Hotel’s parking garage (that really happened) or writing a warning ticket for someone who is burning garbage in Sooke, the role of a conservation officer is more than a job – it’s a calling.
“We have some great days and some really tough days, but in the end, there’s no job I’d rather be doing,” said Norris with a smile.