Fort Simpson man shot by wildlife officer last month says ENR still has some explaining to do

Dennis Nelner was in his Fort Simpson home when he was accidentally shot by an ENR officer in September 2019. (Photo courtesy of Dennis Nelner).

A Fort Simpson man who was shot last month by a wildlife officer with the territorial government’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) says he and his community are still owed some answers.

Dennis Nelner, 54, was hit in the thigh with a slug fired from a shotgun while he was inside his home back on Sept. 20.

The slug was fired in broad daylight by the ENR officer who was trying to shoot a bear that had wandered into the community.

Nelner says he’s finally off crutches, but that he’s still recovering from his injury.

“It still hurts. I still have pain when I walk. I still haven’t been able to return to work,” Nelner told CKLB Friday.

Ongoing investigations

Two investigations into the shooting are continuing—one by the RCMP, the other by ENR officials.

Those officials are refusing to say whether the officer has undergone firearm safety retraining, whether he had ever received training in the first place and if he is still armed when he is on duty.

Nelner says ENR owes him and the residents of the Dechcho community an explanation and the status of the officer’s possible firearm training.

“I have serious concerns. I want to hear a game plan from ENR or at least some sort of response. People in Fort Simpson are still on edge over this incident. I doubt he’s still firing a firearm. But the town should be told that. This officer absolutely needs to be retrained,” Nelner said.

Joslyn Oosenbrug, Yellowknife-based spokesperson for ENR, explained to CKLB that the department has no comment on the shooting while its own internal investigation is still underway.

Back when it happened, Oosenbrug told CKLB that public safety is always the main priority for ENR when responding to problem wildlife or wildlife-human conflicts.

“Under the (NWT) Wildlife Act, a problem bear may be destroyed if it endangers public safety or property, or if it is wounded or diseased. Our standard operating procedure dictates that lethal removal activities should be conducted away from the public where possible. However, in any incident where imminent threat to public health or safety exists, any appropriate and necessary action may be applied,” she said at the time in an email.

ENR has confirmed that the officer, who hasn’t been publicly identified, is still on the job.

Fewer bears shot, more trapped

Nelner says bear numbers in town have risen since municipal officials electrified the fence around the landfill this past spring, forcing more bears into the community in search of food.

All the more reason, he says, that wildlife officers must be properly trained if they are going to shoot bears.

According to statistics provided by ENR, wildlife officers shot and killed three bears in Fort Simpson this past August compared to nine in the same month last year.

Seven bears were trapped and relocated in the Dehcho this year compared to five in 2018, according to ENR.

‘It’s not a video game’

He says the public has a right to know whether the officer who shot him still has a firearm and whether he has received firearm safety retraining since the shooting.

Nelner says he heard several shots that day but doesn’t believe any of them hit the bear.

“I looked and couldn’t find any blood from the bear. The shot that hit me entered my house and ping-ponged around before hitting me in the thigh,” he added. “I’m thankful my wife and my two teenage kids weren’t home at the time. They could have been killed. I could have been killed.”

CKLB reached out to the Mounties for an update on their investigation.

They say it’s still ongoing and offered no update.

Nelner says he grew up with firearms in the home for hunting and protection purposes.

He adds everyone in the home knew how to use guns safely and understood the protocols and procedures that came with owning a firearm.

“Never ever point the muzzle at someone and know your line of sight. You have to make sure you know what’s behind your target in case you miss. The ENR officers back then knew the same safety rules. No one was ever shot by a wildlife officer back then,” Nelner said. “Some of the younger officers now can’t handle their weapons properly. I don’t think this officer had a good enough grip on the firearm. You have to put your shoulder into it. It’s not a video game.”

An RCMP officer was eventually called in and killed the bear, which police say posed a threat to people in the community.

Nelner, who works for the GNWT’s Department of Finance, says he has talked to a lawyer and is still weighing his legal options.

He says ENR officials have been to his home since the incident, as part of their internal investigation but he adds they never offered him an apology.

About the Author

John McFadden
John has been in the broadcast journalism industry since the 1980s. He has been a reporter in Yellowknife since 2012 and joined CKLB in January of 2018. John covers the crime and court beat as well as reporting on other areas including politics, business, entertainment and sports. He won seven national community newspaper awards while he was a journalist with Northern News Services Limited (NNSL). John worked in Ontario before coming North including stints as a TV sportscaster in Peterborough and senior news writer for CBC and CTV in downtown Toronto.