Dawn of the Sneak Patrol:
skimpy cover for the first invisible wildlife officers
by J. B. Struthers

Some investigations require an indirect approach. Here are a couple of examples from the good old days, before undercover operations were routine to fish and wildlife enforcement.

On a cold November night, back in 1970 or ’71, the RCMP detachment in Drayton Valley received a phone call from a local hotel. The caller alleged that someone was approaching bar patrons and offering moose meat for sale. A corporal who had that day moved to Drayton, stopped by the bar a half hour later. Before he had downed his first beer, he was approached and agreed to buy the moose provided it could be delivered to his residence. The seller agreed.

They proceeded to the corporal’s residence in the seller’s truck. When the seller left the vehicle to unload the four quarters of moose meat, the corporal took the keys from the ignition.

The moose was unloaded, the cash changed hands, the corporal flashed his badge. The violator jumped into his truck and locked the doors. After a short pause, the truck was fired up and began to pull away from the curb. The shocked Mountie, realizing he had no idea who the violator was, glanced at the licence plate. It was covered with snow. There was only one choice.

The good corporal leapt into the back of the truck before it got up to speed. He then cleared the plate and recorded the licence number in his notebook. At this juncture, in the cold wind and blowing snow, he concluded that the driver was heading for the highway. The curling sweater the Mountie had donned for the short walk to the bar did little to break the wind. Fortunately the truck slowed some before entering the highway and the corporal managed a safe if clumsy dismount.

A check of motor vehicle records provided a name and address. A patrol to that rural location, however, revealed that the culprit had returned home, packed a few things and headed for parts unknown. He was apprehended about a week later.

Late in the following hunting season, the Evansburg Fish and Wildlife Office received information that moose meat was being sold in the bar in Cynthia. B.V. Sigurdson , who was then responsible for coordinating our outfit’s problem wildlife program, spent the next evening with me, drinking beer and playing shuffleboard in the bar of the Cynthia Hotel. We were posing as hunters. Neither Vic nor I were renowned for drinking beer or, if the truth be known, for shuffleboard.

Sometime after 11 p.m., a couple of fellows I didn’t recognize, approached us and we chatted a bit. Rather than offering moose meat for sale, they challenged us to a game of shuffleboard. They whipped us soundly. More galling than that was the fact that halfway through the game, the younger one of the pair said, loud enough for all to hear, "I know you! You’re that game warden from Evansburg." Whatever cover we had was blown.

In 1974 the Fish and Wildlife Division established a special investigator position. During the following seven years, three individuals held that position which was intended to address problems of a serious nature which could not be addressed by uniformed officers within standard practice. Several circumstances frustrated the success of the new unit:

  • as this operation was the first of its type in Canada, procedures and policies had to be established as operations proceeded;
  • existing budget and audit demands could not sanction expenditures required for covert operations;
  • insufficient staff and no process to acquire suitable operatives for extended covert operations;
  • demands from assigned administrative functions (e.g. establishment of case law library, assistance with prosecutions, development of officer handbook, draft responses);
  • confidentiality and ‘need to know’ restraints;
  • technicalities associated with establishing cover identities;
  • inadequate budgets.

Nothing good comes easy! By the mid ’80s, many of these problems were overcome. Cash reserves were established to facilitate day to day operations. Operatives were contracted for specific projects. A second position was dedicated to the unit. Unrelated administrative functions were reassigned.

Today that section functions under the direction of the Head of Enforcement Operations and employs: an Undercover Unit Coordinator, two special investigators, a covert unit coordinator, contract operatives as required and an intelligence/support position. Additionally, five field officers have received special training and are available should their services be required.

This operation, supported by some nifty high-tech equipment, poses a significant threat to those who would abuse Alberta’s fish and wildlife resources but that’s a story I will leave to others.

Undercover operations have come a long way since the good old days.

J.B. Struthers is a member of the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Officers Association in Edmonton.