Nelson’s grizzly wrangler moves on

For all the sleep he lost chasing grizzly bears around Nelson last summer, Len Butler admits it was actually a career highlight.

Outgoing Nelson area conservation officer Len Butler (right) received a commendation from former police chief Dan Maluta (left) last year. After 19 years

Outgoing Nelson area conservation officer Len Butler (right) received a commendation from former police chief Dan Maluta (left) last year. After 19 years

For all the sleep he lost chasing grizzly bears around Nelson last summer, Len Butler admits it was actually a career highlight.

“I enjoyed it,” he says. “It was stressful, but a real good challenge.”

After 19 years of pursuing poachers, dealing with habituated bears, and otherwise managing local fish and wildlife, Nelson’s lone conservation officer is on the move.

Butler began his new job last week in Williams Lake, where he has been promoted to sergeant, supervising seven officers in a district stretching from Quesnel to 100 Mile House to Bella Coola.

When he arrived in Nelson in 1992, he was one of three officers policing the area, but over a decade the numbers were whittled down until he was the last man standing.

“Guys left this area when we had more officers because of the sheer number of bears and complaints,” he says. “I don’t know how I lasted.”

PRAIRIE ROOTS

Butler grew up in Alberta farming communities, imbuing him with a love of the outdoors from an early age. He joined that province’s fish and wildlife department and was first assigned to the problem wildlife section.

“Once I started dealing with grizzlies, that grabbed me,” he says. “The enforcement side too. Catching the bad guys, the poachers — I still get a kick out of that.”

He spent a decade with the conservation service in Alberta, with his final posting in Fort Chipewyan, a northern community accessible only by plane, boat, or ice road. Coming to Nelson was “quite a change.”

The district then ran from the top end of the Duncan River, bordering Glacier National Park, to Galena Bay in the north, down to Salmo, and up the Slocan Valley. Later, officers could be pulled to work anywhere from Grand Forks to Creston.

As their numbers decreased, Butler’s workload increased, but he didn’t complain.

“I like being busy,” he says. “My wheels still burn pretty good, but it does get overwhelming sometimes when you’re the only guy around. I’m kind of old school. I like going to work. I like calls at home because then I know what’s going on.”

As he became a one-man show, he relied more on the Nelson Police Department, whom he calls “a very supportive group. They’ve been a great resource, and it’s been fun working with those guys.”

He says contrary to popular belief, there is no shortage of hunting and fishing violations around Nelson: enforcement took up a good chunk of his time, and he ran undercover operations that snared offenders in the Meadow Creek area.

As lead defensive tactics instructor for the conservation service, he also spent winters teaching new recruits. Most recently, he was in Victoria for three months, putting prospective officers from across western Canada through the paces.

“Training recruits and being officer in charge of two to three troops is an interesting challenge,” he says. “I learned that I do have patience.”

But most of all he relished any opportunity to leave the office and head for the backcountry: “Even after this many years, once I’m out in the field, that just makes everything worthwhile.”

BUTLER AND THE FOUR BEARS

Then came last summer, when a sow and three cubs were spotted on Granite Pointe Golf Course. Butler figured he’d have the problem solved within a week; instead, the four bruins led him on a nearly month-long chase through Rosemont and Uphill, as they feasted on garbage and unpicked fruit.

Butler didn’t hide his frustration with residents whose carelessness endangered the animals’ lives. Eventually, he trapped and relocated the whole family, but all three cubs subsequently met a bitter end.

As fatiguing as the experience was, Butler says it was a remarkable way to cap his time here.

“It hurt my head, but it was very satisfying,” he says. “It was pretty intense for about three weeks, and I was kind of tuckered afterward, but I look at it as a highlight.”

Nelson police chief Dan Maluta presented Butler with a commendation for working tirelessly during the city’s “greatest human-bear conflict on record.”

KOOTENAY NEVER FAR AWAY

Butler raised a family here. He has three sons who consider the Kootenay home. One is an RCMP officer, another a carpenter in Kamloops, and the third a mechanic at Civic Auto in Nelson.

His wife, a nurse, will be going with him to Williams Lake, although they aren’t in a rush to sell their Balfour home.

While he long resisted moving up the ranks, Butler says the time is right for a change.

“It was the right opportunity, and [the move] came after long, hard thought.”

In Williams Lake, he’ll be part of a team instead of always flying solo, which “will be a bit of a shock. It will be nice not to be the guy that does everything.”

But he says staffing levels had little to do with his decision to leave.

“It’s gone from three officers to me, but it’s been great. I love the area.”

He doesn’t rule out a return to West Kootenay either, for in two years the local sergeant’s position is expected to come open.

Butler’s replacement in Nelson, Jason Hawkes, transferred from northern Vancouver Island, where he spent four years.

“I was very fortunate,” he says. “Len spent the month with me, introduced me to some of the stakeholders in town and showed me some of the area, which was a huge benefit. It was great to have that opportunity.”

Hawkes says he’s been trying to come here since 2003, but Butler’s position was the only one.