A large group of uniformed wildlife officers paraded up Great Northern Road from Quattro Hotel and Conference Centre to the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service building Tuesday.
The parade was part of opening day activities for approximately 200 game wardens and conservation officials from across the continent, gathered for the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association annual conference, being held at Quattro from July 18 to 22.
Being a game warden or conservation official has clearly evolved from more than protecting wildlife or fining hunters and fishers who don’t obey the rules.
“Over the course of time, law enforcement is changing, and officers are still dealing with wildlife but also with people having meth labs (in the great outdoors, in an attempt to get away from the eyes of the law),” said Lieutenant Kevin Clayton of the Massachusetts Environmental Police, speaking to SooToday.
“It’s multifaceted,” Clayton said.
“Officers who work here in the Sault have patrols on the St. Marys River and Lake Superior, but then they’re also up in Batchawana on patrol checking hunters, checking fishermen,” said Pete Gilboe, a New Liskeard-based Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) conservation officer.
But, Gilboe added, officers now also have to deal with such things as marijuana grow ops in the bush.
Far more than attending only indoor seminars between now and Saturday at this year’s annual conference, officers will also be doing some outdoor training.
Clayton said “we’ll have some training that’s going to centre on the use of drones, CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) in woodland areas, how to investigate hunting related incidents which may be illegal shootings, or shootings in which someone is (accidentally) injured or killed.”
“There are only so many of us, and we’ve got similar issues in protecting the environment, and its better to have a group of us to get together (to share information and training at conferences), so the bad guys won’t see us coming,” Clayton said.
Officers from areas as far apart as Yukon and Florida, even Hawaii, are attending the conference in the Sault.
“I find it really fascinating, hearing about the differences in the job. An Alberta officer talked about rappelling down a crevice to find bighorn sheep carcasses to collect DNA, and then I spoke to a downtown Toronto officer who deals with raccoon calls, so there is a variety and a diversity,” Gilboe said.
“Kevin works on Cape Cod, how cool is that?” Gilboe said, nodding to Clayton.
Both officers said their careers are rewarding.
“I’ve been doing it for 28 years and still love going to work every day. I can retire in just over two years but I don’t know if I’ll go when my day comes,” Gilboe said.
“I recommend it frequently,” Clayton said.
It is, however, a competitive process to become a game warden, both men said.
“In Ontario there are roughly 200 field conservation officers, by comparison there are about 6,000 OPP officers, to put it in perspective,” Gilboe said.
The job requires passion and dedication, as the hours are not 9 to 5.
“Sometimes people can come to your house and knock on your door if they have a raccoon complaint or a question about how to get a bear tag. And if you’re not home, and your spouse or your partner is, they deal with that,” Clayton said.
This week marks the first time Sault Ste. Marie has played host to the North American Wildlife Enforcement Officers Association annual conference, attracting approximately 200 officers, their spouses, children and guests, adding up to about 400 people in total.
This year’s gathering marks the 125th anniversary of conservation law enforcement in Ontario.
This year’s conference, apart from providing a time of learning and camaraderie for officers, will also consist of recreational activities for officers, their spouses and children, including a Torch Run planned for Roberta Bondar Pavilion (a fundraiser for the North American Game Warden Museum, situated right on the Manitoba-North Dakota border), and trips to St. Joseph Island and the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre.
There will also be awards ceremonies, including the presentation of an award for officer of the year.