Wildlife enforcement comes under fire

Retired federal fisheries officer says provincial enforcement abuses authority

Published on April 14, 2012

A retired federal fisheries officer is taking the Department of Justice to task over what he calls instances of improper conduct by fish and wildlife enforcement officers.

In a letter to The Telegram, Richard Didham referenced a variety of incidents in recent years where he believes officers were either heavy-handed in applying authority or acted inappropriately in attempts to carry out justice.

"They're dangerous, dangerous people," said Didham, who lives in St. Catherine's. "Somebody's going to get shot."

Wildlife enforcement was moved last year from the Department of Natural Resources to the Justice department.

Didham said a wildlife enforcement officer pulled a firearm from his holster during an incident on the Colinet River in 2006. Didham and a friend had come across poachers who fled the scene upon their arrival and left behind a knapsack containing salmon.

When they went back to their vehicle, the officer approached them and asked to check the bag. Didham said he placed the knapsack in the back of the vehicle, at which point the officer drew his gun and started shouting demands at them.

"The young man went out of his mind. When I confronted him and told him the search he was going to conduct was illegal, well, he went berserk," Didham said.

He said the charges brought against both himself and his friend were later dismissed by a judge. Prior to that, Didham was offered a plea bargain, which he declined.

Amongst others, Didham mentions an incident where officers fired shots at a beaver with kittens near Cormack in the presence of Department of Fisheries and Oceans guardians and alleges enforcement officers had once offered $50 bounties for prosecutions against forestry officers.

He also alleges officers involved in undercover operations consumed alcohol and offered nets to individuals for poaching salmon.

"These guys don't seem like they have very much training to me," Didham said.

He suggests the Justice department should take sidearms away from officers and revamp the Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Division.

"It's not the boys in the field, per se, it's the supervision. ... If you've got people that are in charge looking after them and directing these people properly, you wouldn't have this stuff happening. It shouldn't be happening," he said.

Policing function

Justice Minister Felix Collins said fish and wildlife enforcement operates much like a policing organization should.

"It entails many of the same techniques and investigative powers as other enforcement agencies, such as the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the RCMP," Collins said.

"By being a part of the Department of Justice, the fish and wildlife division benefits from the shared training opportunities with the other enforcement agencies, as well as knowledge transfer and co-operation with the other agencies."

Collins said he is familiar with the complaints made by Didham and has spoken with him in the past.

He said the department is satisfied the Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Division is staffed with highly trained officers dedicated to working in a professional manner.

The use of undercover operations is acceptable, though he would not comment specifically on the allegation involving bounties for the prosecution of forestry officers.

He then reiterated his point that fish and wildlife enforcement officers are highly trained and professional.

Collins said he is pleased with the progress made by the division since becoming a part of Justice.

"This is a new division and it's growing. It's becoming more professional," he said.

"We're improving the training all the time. We're improving the equipment. We're developing a special Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Division that fits very well from the shared resources of the Department of Justice. We're very happy with the results so far."

arobinson@thetelegram.com Twitter: TeleAndrew