Kevin Johnstone, senior conservation officer, enforcement and compliance, looks at the grizzly bear damaged chicken coops Pauline Paton’s farm on July 10. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

More than the ‘bear police’: An afternoon with Yukon conservation officers

“Not everyone gets to handle a live grizzly bear or an orphaned moose.”

It was 1:30 p.m. on a Wednesday and the building at 10 Burns Road was a hive of activity. It’s the Environment Yukon building and the conservations officers were working through the day’s unpredictable agenda.

Born-and-raised Yukoner Kevin Johnstone was one of those officers and also this journalist’s guide for the day. His proper title is senior conservation officer, enforcement and compliance – meaning he just does more paper now than he used to, he says.

After a quick tour of the building, which included some typical offices, a “war room”, some mounted plastic elk heads, and a large boat, we popped out the back of the building and walked towards a truck.

It’s the best truck we have, explained Johnstone. It’s the department’s newest and has the update colour scheme on it. The brown stripe has been replaced by black and they added some vertical stripes.

The uniform too has changed. The khaki coloured shirts are now dark green and the pants are black.

“There were agencies within the government that had similar looking vehicles,” explained Johnstone. “We’re trying to establish our own identity. We just want to distinguish ourselves so that people know who they’re dealing with.”

The crew cab of the truck was full – a gun box for locking up fire arms, a rifle mount, paint ball gun with dust balls, emergency gear, a rainproof jacket, and a large box of unknown contents.

The front of the truck was basic – a CB radio with a ball cap hanging off it that read Yukon Conservation Officer.

On this afternoon’s agenda is a visit to a bear trap near Fox Lake set up the previous day.

“We’re trying to get away from being thought of as bear police,” said Johnstone.

“There is so much more the department does.”

Educating the general population is a big part of a conservation officer’s job.

“We have our mandate, and that includes public education. So we have different avenues and programs that are set up for educating the public whether it’s a young school group or adults,” Johnstone said.

Education can include anything from public noon-hour classes on how to use bear spray, outdoor classroom education for youth, or even just speaking with homeowners on how to remove animal attractants from their yards.

“We do also have to enforce the rules and regulations for our resources out there,” said Johnstone.

In the summer this can mean hitting the water to make sure fishers are staying within their limits and using the proper gear. In the other seasons this could mean hopping on a quad or snow machine and checking up on hunters.

Conservation officers also deal with calls involving injured animals. They are the ones who will capture an injured animal and have it inspected by the animal health unit. If it can be rehabilitated, they will attempt that, often by use of the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

But in reality, in the spring and summer, policing nuisance bears is a big part of the conservations officer’s job.

“Ultimately public safety is our number one priority,” said Johnstone. “Unfortunately sometimes, when that gets compromised, we have to step in if it’s a wild animal.”

Destroying an animal is the last resort and the worst part of the job, Johnstone said. That and paperwork.

Conservation officers will do everything they can to safely remove a troublesome animal from an area. They can try to sedate the animal. They sometimes fire dust balls at them from a paint ball gun. (They started using this instead of rubber bullets, which were far more harmful to the animal). And if the animal is not around when they arrive, they will set traps.

The bear trap near Fox Lake was a cambrian trap. They are light and can be transported by helicopter easily. They are also larger and more “airy” than the culvert traps on wheels, which some believe makes it easier to lure an animal in to.

But alas, the trap was empty upon arrival at Pauline Paton’s farm. A day or two earlier, she had been visited by a grizzly bear. Now, as she builds a barn all by herself on the property, she keeps a loaded shotgun near by, just in case.

She’s not sure when the bear attack occurred on her chicken coops exactly, but she remembers her dogs barking relentlessly in the direction of the coops one night.

“But they bark at squirrels,” Paton said with a laugh, “so I didn’t really think anything of it at the time.”

The grizzly destroyed 15 to 20 of her chickens. Feathers and half eaten carcasses lay scattered around her farmyard. She’s leaving them in case the bear comes back.

“I figure he can finish eating what’s left behind,” she said. The bear trap was also baited with a dead chicken inside.

Johnstone checked out the trap, and the damages to the coops. It’s a brazen bear, he said, based on the amount of damage.

Generally, the traps are only left for a day or two, but in this case they will leave the trap a couple extra days due to the aggressiveness of this bear.

After the check is done it’s back to town – unless another call comes in. It’s something different everyday.

“No two days are the same,” said Johnstone, who’s been a conservation officer for 21 years. “If you talk to any of the C.O.’s, they’ll say that’s why they got into it, because the job is so diverse.”

Johnstone has been a part of the Conservation Officer Services Branch since 1993 and has worked all around the territory: Watson Lake, Ross River, Haines Junction, Mayo, Herschel Island and now Whitehorse. He knew he wanted to be a conservation officer since he was a kid.

And after nearly three decades, he still loves his job.

“Just getting out in the environment and getting to learn the different areas,” Johnstone said as one of his favourite parts of the job.

“It’s always nice too, when you get out there and you get to save an animal (or a human),” he added. “And you get to handle animals. Not everyone gets to handle a live grizzly bear or an orphaned moose.”

Contact Crystal Schick at crystal.schick@yukon-news.com

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