The Return of Alberta Fish and Wildlife


After seven years of bureaucracy, the Fish and Wildlife Service returns from the ashes...

The haze was lifting from the fields and the eastern sky was crimson, foretelling of the dawn to come on the prairies. He stood very still in the patch of dark woods and listened to the geese passing overhead, identifying each flight by their voices. First he heard the Lesser Canadas, just making them out as they passed over in the lightening sky. Following these, a small flight of Speckle Bellies and then the staccato sounds of the Snows, long lines of them, winding their way to their arctic nesting grounds. They followed the mysterious urging that would inextricably draw them the thousands of miles to their destination, a place to which they had returned each year since far before man measured time. He pondered the prairies that the ancestors of these birds had flown over on this same journey a hundred years ago, two hundred, a thousand. Had a man like him stood here near this spot and listened to them in the dawn a thousand years ago? Yes, he had, no doubt about it. What was his purpose? Was he a hunter like him? Of that he was certain. Was his purpose to stalk an elk or a bison, perhaps? Did he wonder where the geese were going? Would he have understood why someone like himself, far into the future, would stand here and why? He pondered who would stand here a hundred years from now and what their purpose would be.

An hour after dawn, there was one conclusion he drew. No deer were passing by on the trail he stood by. That was all right too. His mission was to kill them after all, to add them to the study to search for Chronic Wasting Disease, a scourge that was heading this way. His purpose was therefore an unnatural one, one on this morning that deserved to fail. CWD was a disease that wasn't supposed to be here, after all. People who unknowingly played with fire helped it along. He quietly returned to the patrol truck that was parked behind a screen of brush. His partner returned also. He had also seen the geese and no deer. Nearby residents were likely making their coffee right now, he thought. Would they know the officers had been and gone? Maybe, maybe not.

Who can be relied upon to respond to threats to our natural resources without hesitation? When things get tough, who comes through in the crunch? Conservation officers do, and as a whole they are a very conservative lot. They do not suffer fools and bunglers gladly. I am one of them, a CO, but perhaps I am also one of those fools.

You might wonder once in a while who is calling the shots in protecting your resources. Well, lately there have been more changes in the provincial government. After a quiet provincial election on March 12, 2001, the Government of Alberta announced a series of re-structuring moves. The Natural Resources Service of Alberta Environment, the employer of conservation officers, was a major casualty of this re-structure. The aftermath of this announcement has been the splitting of responsibilities of conservation officers into two areas: with the Fish and Wildlife Service placed in the new department of Sustainable Resource Development and with the Parks and Protected Areas Division moved to the department of Community Development. Approximately 70 per cent of conservation officers have been placed in the new Fish and Wildlife Service and 30 per cent in Parks and Protected Areas.

A number of the executive members from the Conservation Officers Association of Alberta recently met with the Honorable Mike Cardinal, the Minister of Sustainable Resource Development. I was very pleased to discover that he is very supportive of our goals and he was particularly outspoken on the need to ensure distinctive identities for officers in the new Fish and Wildlife Service and to restore the pride in our history that had nearly been lost.

Today, we must contemplate having traveled a full circle in seven years. In 1994, Alberta's (then) Fish and Wildlife Division was planning a celebration to mark its 35th anniversary. These preparations were cut short, however, with the announcement that the Fish and Wildlife Division was being eliminated by department re-structuring and replaced with the new Natural Resources Service (NRS), a combination of divisions from three former government departments. The former Fish and Wildlife Division employees were shocked and dismayed at the loss of their proud identity with Fish and Wildlife. It was the same story with the Parks Service. There would be no recourse for any of them. The anniversary preparations for the (then defunct) Fish and Wildlife Division were quietly cancelled. Let us just say that nothing works better to crush morale than making a statement that the proud history of your organization means nothing. In 1994, both Fish and Wildlife Officers and Park Rangers found themselves in the new NRS. In 1995, responding to concerns over changing responsibilities, the government of the day promised it would not combine Park Rangers and Fish and Wildlife Officers into a single series (that changed in November of 1998 when the government announced it would do just that!).

Meanwhile, back in 1996, a seemingly innocent move was made by NRS management to strike a committee comprised of employees from different branches of the service. This committee, known as the Uniform Committee, would be assigned to formulate changes to uniforms and other visible identifiers within the new service.

The identity debacle

Suffice to say that the Uniform Committee of the rank and file toiled endlessly over details of such things as new patrol vehicle door insignia and uniforms. Late in 1996, amid anxious hand wringing and anticipation by management, the committee's report was submitted. A key message in this report was the need to retain distinctive identities for those who worked in different responsibilities within the service. Management responded unilaterally in early 1997 by ignoring numerous recommendations of the committee. A new policy was released that made all uniforms worn within NRS the same, both for enforcement and non-enforcement staff. Uniform shirts, pants and shoulder flashes would be identical for all branches. Department vehicles would also be made as generic as possible.

Among other niceties, Fish and Wildlife officer and park ranger dress tunics were eliminated. Fish and Wildlife officer forage hats were deemed too "police-like" and were eliminated in lieu of baseball caps. Fish and Wildlife officer rank insignia was also eliminated but, out of general embarrassment we shall presume, these pins were still made available at the central warehouse for some years.

On the subject of dress tunics and rank insignia, a little history is in order. Certain individuals within the department in 1997 and later, were very negative for reasons that were obscure. At least some of these individuals used their influence to ensure that anything too "police-like" must be deemed "elitist" (I quote) and removed. Out went the uniform (and who knows what other identity changes were influenced by this attitude) of Fish and Wildlife officers. Presuming that one of these people may read this and somehow generate the nerve to respond, I await the opportunity to hear from them.

What else could change?

The Chief of Enforcement, Jim Struthers, retired in 1997 and management unilaterally eliminated the Chief of Enforcement position he held. Thereafter, Regional Superintendent positions from the former Fish and Wildlife Division were eliminated. A new, softer management approach was chosen to replace them. This was the adoption of the Area Management concept - a move that had failed and was rejected in some other jurisdictions. Senior officers from the rank and file applied for these positions but, thanks to careful screening criteria, the majority had their applications screened out of the competition and they were refused interviews.

In May of 1998 a bungled "officer series review" was announced. The five pay levels in the officer series was handily reduced to three levels, a move deemed quite adequate by Human Resources experts. No doubt they used slide rules in making this careful calculation. This fine move undid 30 years of fine-tuning for the officer series and put it in a state where inconsistency in pay levels versus responsibilities can now readily be found. Following the bulk of the series review was the November 1998 announcement that Fish and Wildlife officers and park rangers would be combined into a single stream of conservation officers and share identical responsibilities.

This painful series review exercise finally concluded in June of 1999 with the outcome of forced job competitions that had been arranged to see which officers would be in charge of each NRS district. The last change created the conservation officer in legislation, and this took effect on February 15, 2000.

A study of employee morale in the new department was undertaken. Lo and behold! Morale was found to be low!

What's next?

This is all history now. With the last changes impacting conservation officers completed in February of 2000, it took just over a year before the March 15, 2001, decision to reverse many of the organizational changes that have occurred during the last seven years. Conservation officers are now separated between two departments that house Fish and Wildlife, and Parks and Protected Areas respectively. There have been a lot of mistakes made. We need to get the lead out of the agenda to iron out who does what, establish the roles, responsibilities and identities of officers within the two departments and get on with it.

I dwell on these elements in our strength, on these resources which we have mobilized and control. I dwell on them because it is right to show that the good cause can command the means of survival; and that while we toil through the dark valley we can see the sunlight on the uplands beyond. Sir Winston Churchill - taken from War of the Unknown Warriors, July 14, 1940, BBC Broadcast, London.

Pat Dunford is a member of the Conservation Officers
Association of Alberta in Edmonton