Fort Simpson man hit by stray bullet hopes for change in how bear encounters are handled

A Fort Simpson, N.W.T., man who was accidentally shot by a territorial Environment and Natural Resources officer hopes his injury results in changes to how problem bears are handled in residential areas.

"If there's no procedural change then I'm very worried that, you know, it could happen again," said Dennis Nelner, who was hit by a stray bullet inside his home last September.

The officer who fired the shot was aiming for a bear nearby that had been acting aggressively in the village. 

Nelner believes officers may need more firearms practice and more training on "tracking animals, and tracking them out of the community as opposed to, you know, firing in the community." 

On the night he was shot, Nelner said, the bear was just outside his property in downtown Fort Simpson. He said an Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) officer told him to take his dog and go inside. 

"We are a rural northern community, but, you know, this area here is one of the more highly densely populated parts of the community" he says. "I'm right across the street from the school, community centre, the church." 

If there's no procedural change then I'm very worried that, you know, it could happen again. - Dennis Nelner

Nelner said he was inside his kitchen when a bullet pierced the wall and ricocheted around the room before passing through his thigh, narrowly missing the bone and major artery. 

He was medevaced to Yellowknife for treatment. 

On Tuesday, Northwest Territories RCMP said after their investigation and a review by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, no charges would be laid against the ENR officer. 

Incident 'entirely unpredictable,' says ENR

An ENR spokesperson said the incident is "extremely unfortunate," and that the way it unfolded was "entirely unpredictable and the likelihood of it happening again is extremely low."

Joslyn Oosenbrug said the officer fired at a charging bear more than 50 metres from the home, and that the projectile hit the ground before penetrating the house. 

She said an "independent internal investigation" didn't identify issues with the officer's training or experience, and found the officer followed the proper procedures.

Lessons learned from the incident will be incorporated into officer training in the future, said Oosenbrug. She said Fort Simpson ENR officers were given extra firearms practice this spring and the department has increased its use of live capture traps.

Submitted by Dennis Nelner
Submitted by Dennis Nelner

Lasting complications

Nelner said the injury has left lasting complications. It's created or exacerbated other aches and pains, and he can't do his job in the same way.

As a clerk in the N.W.T. Department of Finance, Nelner would spend his workday at a computer, but after being shot, he said sitting all day aggravates the injury, creating more problems.

"We're working on trying to accommodate that," he said. 

Nelner said he's gotten neither an apology nor compensation from the territorial government, and that he's talking to lawyers.

Oosenbrug said ENR's regional superintendent "visited the man at his home the first week after the incident to see how he was doing and wish him a speedy recovery." ENR could not immediately give comment about compensation.

As for the bear that instigated the fiasco, it was found and killed.

"They got him someplace outside of the community," said Nelner.

"He was in a little worse condition than I was. He received a few more bullet holes."