VANCOUVER—A Vancouver Island conservation officer who defied orders and refused to kill two bear cubs has won a legal fight over his dismissal.
It’s a ruling that shows conservation officers may challenge orders that could result in too many wildlife deaths, a leading animal rights lawyer says.
The B.C. Court of Appeal’s decision, which nullified Bryce Casavant’s firing, strikes a blow against a “kill culture” that has pervaded the province’s conservation service, according to Rebeka Breder, who was one of the first in Canada to specialize in animal law.
Conservation officers in B.C. field thousands of bear reports every year. Often reports present them with a tough decision — to kill the bear, or to not kill the bear.
According to provincial statistics, the B.C. Conservation Officer Service killed 542 black bears and 26 grizzlies in 2019.
“It took a lot of guts to do what he did. In the bigger picture, the ruling sets a precedent that conservation officers could stand up to supervisors against kill orders when it is appropriate to do so,” Breder told the Star.
Five years ago, Casavant euthanized a mother bear, who had been eating garbage inside a mobile home park in Port Hardy on Vancouver Island.
But he judged that her cubs, who were only about two months old and the “size of two small dogs,” had a chance to be rehabilitated and brought them to a veterinarian instead.
Wildlife conservation has been his life passion, and Casavant didn’t expect that sparing the cubs would lead to his suspension.
At the time, an online petition calling on B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak to reinstate Casavant collected tens of thousands of signatures within days of his dismissal.
The case drew international attention, and British comedian Ricky Gervais expressed his support for Casavant on Twitter, saying, “Reinstate this honourable man!”
The two cubs, named Jordan and Athena, were later successfully released back into the wild.
Last week, the top court’s three-judge panel stated in its decision, “Mr. Casavant euthanized the sow but not the cubs because he understood, from speaking with the complainant, that only the sow had been eating garbage.”
“Killing the cubs in these circumstances would be inconsistent with ministry policy.”
Upon reading the decision, Casavant said, he cried for 15 minutes.
He called it a tremendous relief and “vindication.”
“It shouldn’t have happened. Legally speaking, my dismissal never happened,” Casavant told the Star on Wednesday.
He had defended himself through much of the court proceedings, where he argued that as a special constable appointed under the Police Act, the decision of discharging his firearm was his to make.
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Although the B.C. Supreme Court twice rejected his arguments, the Court of Appeal ultimately agreed with Casavant and said such proceedings fall under the Police Act rather than the collective agreement between his union and the Ministry of Environment.
“The decision basically chastised the government and union, saying conservation officers should be treated fairly and proper procedures should fall under the Police Act,” Breder said.
Casavant said: “A constable has independent discretion. It’s their badge, their service weapon. It’s their individual appointment under the Police Act. They’re more than an employee.”
“I lost my career in environmental law enforcement. It was my identity as a constable for this province, and I took that job and role very seriously.”
“I served the people and the wildlife of this province in good faith and to the best of my abilities. To have that stolen and taken away unlawfully is not OK,” he said.
A Ministry of Environment spokesperson told the Star in an email, “We will be carefully reviewing the decision and will not be commenting any further in the meantime.”
Breder said the case and public discussion around it highlight how the Conservation Officer Service needs to address what she called an issue of declining public trust.
Last summer, public debate erupted over the appropriate actions of conservation officers in residential neighbourhoods after officers arrested two men and a woman in Coquitlam B.C.. They were charged with obstructing a conservation officer after the residents allegedly stepped between officers and a mother black bear with two cubs.
The resident who was arrested, Tony Faccin, told the Star that he was concerned over his two school-aged children who were playing in the yard while officers were chasing the bears.
Casavant and his lawyer are still reviewing the new court decision, and he has not decided whether to continue working as a conservation officer.
With files from Wanyee Li.