Creston conservation officer James Barber has been named the BC Conservation Officer Service’s Outstanding Officer of the Year for 2017, an award originally scheduled to be presented late last year.
Barber, who has been working in the Creston Valley region for most of his adult life, received his award at a ceremony in January.
“A respected investigator recognized for his fair and consistent approach, Barber is well known in the Creston community he has served for more than 25 years. His experience and approachability has led to strong relationships with the public, partner agencies, First Nations and fellow conservation officers, who often turn to him for advice and mentorship,” says a press release from the Conservation Service.
“It is not uncommon for Barber to go out of his way to ensure a query has been answered or a phone call returned. Even on days off, Barber spends time at community events to enhance the COS presence in the region. He has contributed countless personal hours toward projects, such as the annual Duck Lake Derby and the construction of the Flathead and Christian Valley cabins. A familiar face throughout Creston, it is not unusual for residents to approach Barber in public to report an incident or ‘talk shop.’”
“The honour has been very rewarding,” Barber said on Friday. “I have had cards dropped off at the house, texts, emails and so on. But we don’t do this job for recognition, but because we enjoy it.”
Barber was raised in the Quesnel area and was working as a surveyor when a single event turned out to be an epiphany. He was surveying in the bush when he came across a site where an elk had been illegally killed.
The animal had been left, but not before the shooter had turned it into something of an effigy.
“It was like something from a Salvador Dali painting,” Barber recalls. “At that point I thought I could be mad and complain, or I could do something. So I quit my job and went back to college.”
At what was then Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University), Barber completed a two-year course in resource management officer training.
“It was an absolutely fantastic, very hard course,” he said. “I knew then that this was what I wanted to do.”
Three-quarters of the graduating class got jobs in the field immediately, and Barber took a job in Kitimat as a fisheries officer. Two years later he got a call from the BC Conservation Officer Branch with an offer of a position in Creston.
“Of course I said sure, but I had no idea where Creston was!”
On the drive to the Kootenays, Barber was thinking that his life was now mapped out—he’d stay single and work all over the province, fishing and hunting when he wasn’t working.
“Then I came down from the Summit and the Creston Valley just opened up in front of me—I knew then that my plans had changed!”
In Creston, the new CO was teamed with a veteran mentor in Arnold de Boon.
“We hit it off right away. Arnie became my work partner and my friend. He was very dedicated to the work, and that rubbed off on me. He was absolutely great to work with—he let me try different things. Some worked and some didn’t, but I always had his support.”
De Boon and other COs he has worked with in the region have all been supportive and friendly.
“We are in a job where we step on people’s toes at times, and some of them get mad, for various reasons. But for the most part I have found people in the Creston Valley to be very passionate about their environment and the preservation of our fish and wildlife resources,” he said. The Creston Valley Rod and Gun Club, Lower Kootenay Band and RCMP have all been supportive, he added.
Among his career highlights, Barber says, has been his involvement with renowned grizzly bear expert Dr. Michael Proctor and the South Selkirk Trans-border Grizzly Bear Project.
“We live with grizzly bears in this area and our effort to reduce bear-human conflicts is an on-going effort,” he says. “The Creston Flats have turned into their grocery store and their food supply has led to sows giving birth to two or three cubs, so over time their population has grown.”
Black bears are also often in conflict with human habitats, but Barber says public education and awareness has had dramatic effects.
“Arnie and I used to shoot about 40-60 bears a year in my earlier days, but last year I only shot three bears, and one of those had been injured in a vehicle collision.”
He credits people like Trish Drinkle, who coordinates the efforts of WildSafe BC to educate people locally.
“Many years ago I had to shoot two grizzly bear cubs in Wynndel,” Barber said. “I can still remember the look in their eyes.”
He always been an avid hunter and fisherman, but no longer has the stomach to shoot wild game to stock his larder. He now hunts exclusively with a long bow.
Barber is a Predator Attack Team instructor for the COS, and the cougar hound handler for the Kootenay region. He is well-versed in decoy techniques, having led numerous decoy operations around Creston. He is always willing to lend a hand or share his knowledge with fellow officers.
“I work closely with school students, and even encourage them to think about getting into conservation work. It’s very exciting and I’ve had many of them out for ride-alongs over the years.” He has a course coming up at the College of the Rockies later this spring to teach local hikers about safety in the bush. And he conducts workshops about human-bear conflict, even getting invited to the US to teach conservation officers there.
Barber is the 25th recipient of the Outstanding Officer the Year Award. Since 1992, the designation has been awarded annually to a conservation officer for going above and beyond the typical call of duty, exemplifying the values of the Conservation Officer Service: integrity, public service and protection of the environment.
“My sincere congratulations to James Barber on being recognized for his outstanding work in his community of Creston and for his dedication and passion toward protecting our natural resources and preventing human-wildlife conflicts. Conservation officers are often faced with challenges in the field, and it is important we have officers like James who are quick to rise to these challenges and provide inspiration to everyone. I want to thank James – and all conservation officers across the province – for the important work they do every day in B.C.” George Heyman, Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy, said in making the presentation.
Doug Forsdick, chief conservation officer, B.C. Conservation Officer Service, added, “James is a highly experienced, dedicated and respected conservation officer who is deserving of this prestigious recognition. He is a fantastic role model who takes great pride in mentoring new conservation officers. James always puts community first, and his willingness to go the extra mile is inspiring. On behalf of the entire B.C. Conservation Officer Service, I want to thank James for his outstanding service.”
“His selfless contributions have earned him the respect of his peers and supervisors, who describe Barber as the epitome of what a conservation officer should be,” says the press release.
“I’ve always felt this huge responsibility to the people and this area,” Barber said. “I’m a taxpayer too, and I want to give people the best bang for their buck.”