To preserve and protect: Conservation officers in Kawartha Lakes

By Ian McKechnie

Bill Daniher, Mark Robbins, Dave Beavers, Ann Irwin sport uniforms worn by Ontario conservation officers since 1930. Photo supplied by M. Robbins.

Mid-November of 1892 saw Lindsay artist W.A. Goodwin join well-known hunter Joe Thornhill on a week-long jaunt into the wilds of Digby Township in the north end of Victoria County.

Slogging through the rough, swampy landscape in gumboots, Goodwin and Thornhill happened upon a deer in the distance. Thornhill took aim and shot at the buck but didn’t kill it until firing a second shot. Upon further investigation, Goodwin and Thornhill discovered that the first shot had actually passed through the animal’s body and entered a bear that had been stealthily passing through the woods. Though wounded, the bear escaped and Mr. Thornhill “sighed heavily over the loss of the pelt, worth at least $20,” according to an 1892 story in the Canadian Post.

As Thornhill’s disappointment reveals, hunting — then as now — was big business. To protect wildlife from being over-hunted, the provincial government passed an Act for the Protection of Game and Fur-Bearing Animals in 1892, not long before Goodwin and Thornhill headed into the Digby thickets. Five game wardens were hired in that inaugural year; they were supplemented by 392 deputy wardens. By the turn of the 20th century, game wardens were making their presence felt in what is today called Kawartha Lakes. Known as conservation officers (COs) since 1948, they continue to play a vital role in ensuring that fish and wildlife populations are protected.

Among the first game wardens to serve in this area was Edgerton R. Henderson (ca. 1840-1897), of Lindsay’s east ward. “I am sending you a printed abstract of the Game and Fishery laws which will be useful to you,” the province’s senior game warden wrote to Henderson in the spring of 1895, “and I trust you will lose no time in getting to work in the locality in which you reside, so as to make an example of some of the poachers and poachers who are so persistently killing out of season.”

Henderson was responsible for enforcing duck hunting laws that autumn. He died in an unrelated tragic scaffolding accident two years later, but the work of game wardens in the Kawarthas only seemed to get busier. By 1898, some 6,000 sportsmen were flocking to the northern reaches of Victoria County in search of deer. Nearly a decade later, in 1907, Bobcaygeon-based game warden Nichol (whose first name was not mentioned in reports) noted he had issued 300 permits to American tourists for whom Bobcaygeon was a fishing paradise.

Since the beginning, game wardens and conservation officers have had responsibility over large swaths of land and water. Victor E. Harris (1925-2004), a veteran of the Second World War born in Gore’s Landing, became a game warden in 1946. “His office was in Lindsay, but his work took him to [other] areas of the Kawarthas and the western section of Rice Lake,” remembers Harris’s daughter, Lyn Ford. Harris retired in 1980 after 35 years of service as a conservation officer.

Retired conservation officers are a tight-knit community, with plenty of interesting stories from their careers. Ken Morley, who retired in 2010, remembers being called out in the early 1980s to investigate a case of jacklighting south of Port Perry. (Jacklighting is an illegal practice in which a hunter shines bright lights into a field or forest, temporarily stunning an animal into motionlessness and thus making it an easier target). Jacklighters were apparently quite busy in this part of Ontario that night.

“On my way home from this search, after a long and tiring shift, I observed near Little Britain spotlights shining across a field in the still, dark hours of early morning,” Ken recalls. “A pursuit of the suspect vehicle ensued with assistance from the Lindsay OPP resulting in the occupants’ apprehension a short time later.” Two of the vehicle’s occupants were later identified as members of a well-known motorcycle gang with ties to organized crime.

While Ontario’s game wardens have played an important role in conserving the province’s fish and wildlife populations, there have been darker episodes in their history. In 1937, when deputy-game warden Rutherford (again, first name unknown) assaulted young Albert Taylor, of Curve Lake First Nation, and fined his brother, Noah Taylor, for spearing muskrats on Sturgeon Lake.

Arguments were advanced in defence of the Taylor brothers in court proceedings (they were merely trying to secure a livelihood during the Great Depression) and against (they were “killing the fur bearing industry and killing trapping for others who keep the law”). The fact that they were engaged in this activity on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe people was apparently overlooked.

Although it has sometimes been slow and difficult, progress has been made in recognition of treaty rights. “Over the decades, as courts made significant Charter decisions, and governments and First Nations made progress on agreements, conservation officers have had to be ready and able to apply these new policies,” says Mark Robbins, a retired conservation officer living in Lindsay.

Much has changed in the almost 130 years since the first game wardens took up their posts. Today, conservation officers are responsible for enforcing dozens of statutes regulating fishing and hunting, as well as endangered and invasive species. In carrying out their many duties, these professionals work to protect the wildlife that defines so much of what we love about Kawartha Lakes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.