More than 80 per cent of Canadians live in cities, and it’s in these urban areas that RCMP and city police forces are tasked with protecting the public, detecting and preventing crime, and maintaining law and order.
But away from the cities, crime takes on a different light – and for that, you need a different type of officer.
Dressed in boots, blue jeans, a button-up and sometimes a cowboy hat, RCMP Cpl. Cory Lepine of the Provincial Livestock Section doesn’t stand out quite like Mounties in their protective vests and uniforms.
Lepine, dubbed a “cowboy cop” by some, is among the last of his kind, serving as a necessary bridge between the law and those who make a living off the land. In fact, such criminal oversight is so important to those within the livestock industry that when the role became vacant in 2015, it was their pleas that revitalized the role.
He is B.C.’s only cowboy cop
When the RCMP was first established in the late 1800s, every police officer was a ‘cowboy cop.’ Livestock, introduced in the province because of the gold rush, was among the largest commodities in the country.
More commonly known as livestock investigators, cow cops combat complicated crimes and issues pertaining to the livestock industry; from stolen or poached cattle to roadkill, land disputes, fraud investigations, and even dogs chasing a neighbour’s cattle.
At one time, there were five livestock members in the province – a sergeant, a corporal, and three constables – spread throughout the southern half of the province.
From 1900 to 1970, 90 per cent of B.C.’s cattle herd was located from Williams Lake south to the U.S. border. Today, this has flipped, putting the majority of cattle ranches north of Williams Lake and into the Caribou.
Price of land is largely responsible for the shift.
Nevertheless, there’s still a need for enforcement in southern B.C. In the Okanagan, there are several large cattle operations; Douglas Lake Cattle Company, Coldstream Ranch, plus several others in the Kamloops area. In the Kootenays, near Cranbrook, are several large operations as well.
Today, there are just three cow cops in Canada – Lepine in B.C., and two in Alberta.
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Industry pleas for a cow cop
When B.C.’s previous livestock officer, Cpl. Ralph Overby, left in 2015, the position sat vacant for almost three years. It wasn’t until cattle ranchers lobbied the provincial government and the RCMP, that the position was brought back.
While a general duty RCMP officer may view a calf killed by a vehicle as roadkill, Lepine sees it as property damage, “just like someone driving through the front door of your house. There’s got to be consequences.”
Based in Kamloops, Lepine liaises between the livestock industry and the RCMP. Daily, he works closely with the BC Cattleman’s Association and Ownership Identification Inc.
Some days, Lepine joins property owners in fencing their property to keep free-roam cattle out. Other days, he’s a mediator in land disputes. Sometimes, he’s a voice of wisdom for other RCMP members during emergency situations such as a cattle liner crash. He also looks after B.C.’s horse industry, of which there are over 25,000 registered members.
Without a cowboy cop, livestock or ranch owners faced with an issue have limited options for action. Most of the time, they either call one of 36 brand inspectors with Ownership Identification Inc. (OII) or the BC Cattleman’s Association – neither of which has the power to enforce on a criminal level.
OII is B.C.’s brand registration and inspection program, which protect livestock owners against the loss of animals by theft, straying or misappropriation.
“Consequently, (they) call the local (RCMP) detachment, and unfortunately, the answer they’re receiving is, we don’t know anything about livestock. As a resident… I don’t buy that as an answer. But that’s where Cory’s role comes in,” said Bob Miller, general manager of OII.
Lepine tackles an annual average of 150 cases, not including those he’s called out to that are either non-issues or resolved easily. He estimates there are between 200 to 300 situations a year that he never hears about.
“People are shocked that there’s [still] cattle theft, and I always tell them … cattle are a commodity. Beef’s a commodity. It’s no different than televisions or radios. If there’s a market to resell it, they’re going to do it,” said Lepine.
With beef priced at about $8/lb, a cow can easily be worth $2,000.
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A diverse history with the RCMP
Prior to his reinstatement as B.C.’s livestock investigator in 2017, Lepine worked 15 years in uniform as a frontline officer, including four years as a watch commander in West Kelowna. He also spent many of these years working in downtown Kelowna.
“I was kind of burnt out, I was kind of done with policing … people call you for help and they criticize what you do when you get there … which beats on you.”
In April 2019, Lepine was tasked with a difficult case. Two people – apparently a man and a woman – were recorded trespassing on the Eagle Acres Dairy farm in Langley, where they killed a five-day-old calf with a crossbow. After stabbing it multiple times, they dragged it out of the barn, put the animal in the trunk of their car and left.
After extensive research, Lepine hypothesized the killing may have been motivated by the use of ancient Asian medicine. Identification of the individuals was not possible, and the case remains outstanding.
Numerous times, Lepine has also spearheaded investigations into animals in Fort St. John being killed, and their genitalia harvested.
The future of cow cops
Lepine was raised in a city, but after growing up in Kelowna, he fell in love with ranch life. He now owns a ranch and cattle of his own, and wishes more youth of today had the opportunity to spend time on a farm.
“Sometimes it’s good to connect with your roots. And by that I mean, people always look down on these small towns, but life’s pretty simple … Slow down and enjoy (getting) back to your roots a little bit. It saved my career in the RCMP.”
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Lepine doesn’t see his department growing in the future, with with the increasing popularity of plant-based meals, the long-term future of the livestock industry is uncertain.
Ideally, he’d like one more colleague alongside him. Tasked with covering the entire province, there are areas he rarely goes to, such as Vancouver Island, despite the significant number of dairy and beef farms on the coast.
Lepine’s role as a livestock investigator is funded by the RCMP; however, this isn’t the case everywhere. In Alberta, the industry funds a portion.
A proposal by the OII and BC Cattleman’s Association to the BC RCMP to introduce this method of funding fell on deaf ears, according to Miller.
Despite these challenges, Miller stressed they’re fortunate to have their cow cop. And they’ll need him, “as long as there’s livestock in the province.”
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