Should bears that wander into humans’ lives be destroyed? After six years, Bryce Casavant is sharing the story of his decision that day and the long battle that followed.
Two aging black bears are living out their days in the lush, loamy rainforests of northern Vancouver Island thanks to Bryce Casavant. Six years ago, the former conservation officer refused an order to kill the bears. They were infants at the time, weighing a little over 10 pounds apiece. He called the male Jordan and the female Athena – for his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who had been born profoundly ill. The ginger-haired former military officer was fired for declining to kill the cubs.
Media across the globe ran with the story. Comedian Ricky Gervais mounted a campaign to get this “honourable man” his job back, and 300,000 people petitioned the government to reverse course. The backlash over his dismissal roundly embarrassed B.C.’s Liberal government and enraged some of his colleagues within the conservation service, but a lot of regular citizens on the West Coast considered Mr. Casavant a hero.
His actions prompted British Columbians to confront questions once confined to the realm of science: Is it necessary – or ethical – to kill an infant bear? What is our duty of care to predators topping 300 kgs.? Is there a better way to reconcile their needs with ours? B.C.’s conservation service may not want to acknowledge it, but the conversation Mr. Casavant launched could ultimately see the coastal province rethink some of the ways it has been managing wildlife for the last century.
For six years, Mr. Casavant, a high-school dropout from a working-class Metis family, has declined to share his story with media. He couldn’t risk it.
He’d been dismissed from his job as a conservation officer and given a desk job in the ministry of forests as a compliance officer, a disciplinary transfer. The agreement stipulated it would be revoked if he spoke publicly of the bear cubs.
Mr. Casavant needed the paycheque. He says his relationship didn’t survive the imbroglio – all the stress and sleepless nights. His daughter was in and out of hospital. So he clammed up.
Then in 2019, he resigned from the public service and took the Conservation Service to court.
A year ago, the B.C. Court of Appeal unanimously ruled in favour of Mr. Casavant, nullifying his firing. Mr. Casavant, who has no legal training, argued the case before the high court himself. Because he held an appointment as a special constable, this was a policing issue, not a labour issue, the appellate ruling found. Senior bureaucrats and arbitrators had no role in the dispute, and should never have involved themselves in it. The verdict ordered the two sides to hash out the consequences. But when Mr. Casavant wrote Chief Conservation Officer Doug Forsdick asking to return to work, he was told there was “no position” for him.
In February, Mr. Casavant petitioned the B.C. Supreme Court to reaffirm his status as an employee and declare him entitled to back pay. Ministry officials, including Chief Conservation Officer Doug Forsdick, won’t discuss what happened that day and decline to answer questions about Mr. Casavant. He has decided it’s time to share his story.
It all began on a blistering hot July day in 2015, with a complaint from a resident of a mobile home park at the north end of Vancouver Island. The caller said that a female bear and her two cubs had been coming onto his property, eating salmon and deer meat he’d stored in an outdoor freezer. The sow had also wandered into his trailer through an open door left ajar in the heat.
Within minutes of the call, Mr. Casavant’s iPhone buzzed. He was the sole conservation officer stationed in Port McNeill, where he was attached to the local RCMP detachment. He was supervised remotely by Sgt. Mike Newton, who was stationed in Black Creek, 265 kilometres to the south. Sgt. Newton was ordering him via e-mail to kill all three bears.
A wildfire had been raging just outside the nearby community of Port Hardy. Mr. Casavant was coming off an 18-hour shift, helping the RCMP oversee an evacuation order. Just after midnight on July 5, he arrived at the trailer to deal with the bears. After speaking with the complainant and two other witnesses, he says it became clear to him that only the mother bear had eaten meat and garbage, not her cubs.
Mr. Casavant set a trap, then left to get some rest. Just after 4:30 a.m. he returned to the trailer. The sow had been trapped. He destroyed her, but couldn’t see her cubs – it was still dark out. The sow’s breasts were swollen, he noted. She was still nursing.
When Mr. Casavant returned a few hours later, he found the cubs hiding in a tree. He radioed the firefighters he’d been working with, asking them to send over a ladder truck when they took a break. The cubs were too small to be darted. Using the ladder, Mr. Casavant netted the bruins, tranquillized them by syringe, then loaded them into the barrel of his truck. While they were sleeping off the sedative, he called his boss.
By then, he had exchanged multiple emails with Sgt. Newton and the provincial vet, Helen Schwantje. Both urged him to euthanize the infant bears, despite what he was telling them: that North Island policy dictated that all orphaned cubs had to be delivered to a vet for a medical and behavioural assessment. That the bears were still nursing and were neither garbage, nor human habituated. “I have looked inside their mouth, I have looked at their tongue, looked down their throats with a flashlight, I have smelled them,” he told investigators. (The Globe and Mail obtained a transcript of the interview.) “I am telling you there is nothing in their claws. There were no little baby bite marks in any of the plastic bags or garbage. There is no human health and safety risk and there is nothing within policy that would give me that authority to [kill them].”
Sgt. Newton’s reply was terse: “Whose funding do you think that is going to come out of?,” he asked in an e-mail. Money doesn’t factor into the equation, Mr. Casavant replied. “Within the conflict matrix, they have not posed a risk to public safety and do not fall within the destruction category.”
“You are removed from this [file] effective immediately,” Sgt. Newton told him. “You do not have the authorization needed to transport those bears.”
Mr. Casavant brought the cubs to a vet in Port Alberni, taking back roads to avoid the conservation officer sent to remove the bears.
The vet felt the cubs made good rehab candidates. The next day, they were delivered to the North Island Recovery Centre in Errington. Founder Robin Campbell noted the bears showed “zero signs of habituation.” After emerging from hibernation one year later, they were released into the forests of the North Island. They were tracked for a year, until their collars fell off. In that time, neither bear encountered a human, ate garbage or engaged in problematic behaviour of any kind.
It’s often assumed that Mr. Casavant is an animal lover who couldn’t stand to gun down two baby bears. Mr. Casavant says he is “no animal rights activist,” nor anything like it, and never had a problem destroying problem animals. This was about one issue only, he says: Killing the cubs went against Ministry policy.
The Globe and Mail obtained the policy, enacted in 2009 for the North Island region. It indeed required “all” rescued cubs “to be delivered to a veterinarian for a medical evaluation to determine whether the bear is suitable for rehabilitation.” Mr. Casavant told investigators these and other policies were routinely ignored: “Current practice is to kill all cubs – all big game animals, regardless of what policy says, regardless of what the decision matrix supports or the public complaints that come from it,” he said. “If there is conflicting information … you write the file up to justify it.”
In an affidavit, Chief Conservation Officer Doug Forsdick said the service had “ceased applying” the 2009 policy four years prior to the bear cub incident. “A redraft is under way,” Sgt. Newton said in an e-mail to Mr. Casavant after he destroyed the sow. The policy was rescinded on November of 2015, four months after Mr. Casavant’s firing, records show. The new policy gives conservation officers discretion to destroy yearling bears on their own, without medical or behavioural assessments.
In the last 10 years, conservation officers in B.C. have killed 5,383 black bears, 214 grizzly bears and 884 cougars, according to provincial data. This practice has become increasingly controversial, particularly in First Nations communities, where bears are often revered for their strength and courage and in places where they tend to wander in uninvited – Squamish, Whistler, North Vancouver, Coquitlam, among them. It’s led to increasing conflict between conservation officers and members of the public, including allegations of officer assaults on citizens. In some First Nations communities, it’s now standard practice not to call in conservation officers when big game predators appear, according to bear guide Mike Willie, a member of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation on northern Vancouver Island. In 2020, in a widely publicized case, the Mamalilikulla First Nation took a stand, refusing to allow the Conservation Service to kill a male grizzly known as Mali in their traditional territories in the Broughton Archipelago, ultimately forcing its relocation.
B.C.’s Conservation Service relocates a relatively small number of large carnivores: 76 grizzlies and 198 black bears in the last 10 years (they do not relocate cougars). According to the province’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, “Bears and cubs that are habituated to humans or conditioned to non-natural food sources are not candidates for relocation or rehabilitation – the risk to public safety is simply far too great.” Michael Badry, wildlife-conflict manager for B.C.’s Conservation Service, has said that bears taken outside their home ranges seldom adjust well. They have to “fight it out” in food zones where other predators are already established, or run long distances in unfamiliar territory seeking hunting grounds of their own, he says. It is also “expensive” and “time consuming.”
Expensive is a matter of perspective, says Nicholas Scapillati, executive director of the Grizzly Bear Foundation: “What’s the value of returning a keystone species to an ecosystem? The grizzly population in B.C.’s North Cascades has been completely eradicated. They wouldn’t need to fight other grizzlies because there aren’t any left.”
Mr. Casavant argues that Mr. Badry is relying on studies from the 1970s, and ignoring modern research showing that relocation is an effective alternative, particularly for young bears.
Questions about relocation and the destruction of big game predators are especially salient in B.C. The province is among North America’s last havens for grizzly bears, wolves and cougars, the reason biologists and scientists here are arguing for a more restrained approach to lethal force. The problem was, until Mr. Casavant came along, they were having trouble getting the public to care.
Mr. Casavant, who was born to a teenaged mother and raised primarily by his grandparents on Vancouver Island, didn’t set out to become a conservation officer. He grew up loving airplanes. After leaving home at 17, he hung out in hangars, hoping to talk his way into a job that would get him near a plane. An Iranian immigrant who ran an aircraft maintenance facility staffed by new Canadians in the Lower Mainland eventually took pity on him and hired Mr. Casavant to wash his planes, later allowing him to apprentice as an aircraft mechanic. Mr. Casavant says he was never happier than during the days he spent tinkering on aircraft engines under the yellowed hangar roof. Then came 9/11.
Four months after his 21st birthday, he signed up to fight in Afghanistan, joining the military police. He spent years in tiny villages outside the wire in Kandahar, helping train a nascent national police force in areas that had seen heavy fighting, losing friends to a “never-ending string of attacks.”
After retiring from the Forces in 2010, he launched a consultancy in human security, training officers in counterterrorism. All that ended when his daughter Athena was born in 2012 with lymphatic and immune problems and no function in her left hand. Mr. Casavant didn’t want to be away from the little girl, who spent the following five years in and out of hospital, undergoing numerous surgeries. He took the job as conservation officer largely because it allowed him to work near his Vancouver Island home.
From the start, Mr. Casavant has said that he never disobeyed the order to kill the cubs. What he did, he says, was “respectfully decline an unlawful order to discharge a service weapon.” There’s no smirk on his lips when he says this. Mr. Casavant is punctilious to a fault. A “hall monitor,” is how his partner, Lesley Fox, describes him with a sigh.
Officers, like soldiers, have a moral and legal obligation to not obey unlawful orders, he explains. It’s been this way since the judges at the Nuremberg trials that followed the Second World War determined that ‘following orders,’ was not a valid defence to the commission of war crimes. This is drilled into recruits during training and spelled out in B.C.’s Police Act and the Queen’s Regulations and Orders, those governing Canada’s Armed Forces.
Mr. Casavant argues that Sgt. Newton’s kill order was unlawful in two ways. It deviated from the service’s standing policy for yearling cubs. Beyond that, an officer can’t be ordered to use lethal force, whether on a human or animal. That irreversible decision, like its consequences, belongs to an officer alone.
The government has never addressed this issue, which lies at the heart of the dispute: Was Sgt. Newton’s kill order lawful or not? And was Mr. Casavant justified in declining it? Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon of the appellate court noted that as “an office holder,” a constable has a degree of independence in their decision making. They are “not the servant of anyone,” she wrote, and are “answerable to the law and to the law alone.”
An investigation by the ministry instead centred on two questions: In not abiding by Sgt. Newton’s order to kill the cubs, was Mr. Casavant guilty of discreditable conduct and neglect of duty? He was found guilty of both. “We could never trust that if you disagreed with the direction given by a supervisor, that you would follow the direction,” Chief Conservation Officer Doug Forsdick wrote in his letter of dismissal.
None of the myriad officials who weighed in on Mr. Casavant’s dismissal, including arbitrators, bureaucrats and B.C.’s Labour Relations Board had any jurisdiction over it, the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled. Ministry policy “clearly provides” that complaints against conservation officers “are subject to a process mandated by the Police Act,” Justice Fenlon wrote. In declaring Mr. Casavant’s firing a nullity, she acknowledged the “tangled knot” created by this “flawed procedure,” and left it to “the parties to sort out the consequences.” That’s where things are now stalled. The two sides can’t agree on what those consequences should be.
While Mr. Casavant is keen to return to work, lawyers for the province argue that his dismissal was not a constabulary issue. In their response to his petition, they asked the lower court not to follow the appellate ruling, an extraordinary demand. They argue, his decision not to kill the cubs related to the performance of his duties as a conservation officer, not a constable.
Mr. Casavant’s dismissal was due in part to a report prepared by psychologist Keith Forshaw, he was told. The government barred him from seeing it for years, until he unearthed it via a Freedom of Information request. The three-page report says Mr. Casavant was “poorly matched” for the job, and should never have been hired. Mr. Forshaw wrote that “concerns” with Mr. Casavant “first became evident” during training.
The Globe and Mail has obtained the 29 reviews made of Mr. Casavant during his six-week training in 2015. All are effusive in their praise. His final assessment concluded that Mr. Casavant set “a high standard for fellow recruits,” and was a “highly intelligent individual motivated by his desire for excellence in all he encountered.” His classmates, who voted him “top shot,” for his perfect score on the shooting range, were no less fulsome in their praise of a colleague they clearly admired. In 2014, Mr. Casavant won a provincial competition for Detective Sergeant, a senior role, and a significant promotion for an officer with less than two years on the job.
In 2017, the B.C. College of Psychologists initiated an investigation into the report after Mr. Casavant complained about its veracity. They found that it was both unreliable and improperly obtained, and sanctioned Mr. Forshaw.
Mr. Scapillati says the ongoing dispute is about more than just bear cubs. When it comes to big game animals, B.C.’s conservation services has tended to work on a them-or-us paradigm. For decades, B.C. has considered a bear that has eaten garbage, even once, a dead bear, he says. The approach may have worked 100 years ago but with B.C. adding some 10,000 kilometres of roadways to the wilderness each year, there is so little wildlife left, that most bears are in fact human habituated.
Mr. Scapillati believes B.C.’s Wildlife Act badly needs updating. He says that a habituated bear is actually “a pretty good bear,” because “it knows how to live with humans” – primarily how to avoid us. And eating fish guts left on a porch doesn’t mean a bear is habituated, adds Chris Darimont, science director of the Raincoast Foundation and a professor of conservation science at the University of Victoria. He calls black bears “omnivorous opportunists”: When they’re hungry, they take more risks. “Human foods are the riskiest of all foods.” His research has shown that human-grizzly conflicts spike in B.C. in years when salmon runs are low.
Although classed in the order carnivora, the highly exploratory and inquisitive black bear mostly eats plants, which make up as much as 80 per cent of its diet, says Mr. Darimont. Bears are misunderstood in other ways, says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. These are intelligent, social, gentle animals, he says. They feel empathy and embarrassment. They judge. They get bored. They grieve.
And yet a public reappraisal of the value of wildlife can happen, sometimes very quickly. In Europe, a change in attitudes has allowed for the return of wolves, bears, lynx and wolverines. Italy, Austria and France have begun reintroducing grizzlies to parts of their former range. Faint signs of change can be seen in B.C.
Two years after Mr. Casavant’s stand, B.C. ended the wildly controversial trophy hunting of grizzly bears, which claimed some 300 bears a year. First Nations leadership are finally being allowed to play a role in wildlife management, at least in their traditional territories, and bring a markedly different perspective to the table. The opaque decision-making of B.C.’s Conservation Service is being examined by academics. A report last spring criticized the service for a lack of restraint and independent oversight. Officers are given far too much discretion to kill large carnivores, the report by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre found.
But while the conversation on these issues appears to be changing, the data shows the work of the conservation service is not. In the last three years, officers relocated fewer than half as many grizzlies as the three years prior to 2018: 19, compared with 31. In that time, they destroyed twice as many grizzlies (99 versus 42), and roughly the same number of black bears (1,691 versus 1,713) and cougars (233 versus 287) as in the three years prior.
Mr. Casavant, who recently completed a doctorate in social sciences, awaits yet another decision on his case – the sixth in as many years. The waiting is the worst part, says his partner, Ms. Fox, whom he met in 2016. “For months and months, it overshadows everything. You can’t move forward, or plan, or hope, or dream. You’re frozen, and your destiny is tied to what others decide.”
The Globe and Mail, October 23, 2021