British Columbia

Former conservation officer's report cites erosion of public trust in wildlife law enforcement

Former conservation officer Bryce Casavant is calling for changes to wildlife law enforcement agencies in the hopes of strengthening public trust in the B.C. Conservation Officer Service.

Bryce Casavant refused to kill two bear cubs in 2015 and was suspended as a result

Bryce Casavant was suspended for refusing to kill two black bear cubs near Port Hardy in 2015 and has recently released a report about public trust in wildlife law enforcement. (Mike McArthur/CBC, Julie Mackey)

Former conservation officer Bryce Casavant is calling for changes to wildlife law enforcement agencies in the hopes of strengthening public trust in the B.C. Conservation Officer Service. 

Casavant made headlines for refusing to kill two bear cubs in Port Hardy in 2015. That decision led to his suspension, followed by international attention.

He recently released a report looking at public perceptions of law enforcement officers responding to wildlife complaints and where improvements could be made to improve trust.

"Members of the public are witnessing actions in their communities that they are perceiving as inappropriate behaviour," Casavant said. "How we deal with that, as not only a society but as a government body, is very important."

The killing of wildlife — by either an RCMP officer or a conservation officer — reduces public trust in that agency, he told CBC host of All Points West Jason D'Souza.

The report, part of Casavant's research for a doctoral program with Royal Roads University, is an analysis of a survey conducted by the polling firm Insights West.

"Sometimes, wildlife will have to be destroyed as a result of public safety risks but what the data is showing ... and what is concerning is where the public is perceiving lethal force actions on animals as highly inappropriate," he said.

The two infant bears — a brother and sister — that Bryce Casavant refused to kill were taken to a veterinary hospital and later were sent to a recovery centre on Vancouver Island. (Julie Mackey)

Public expectations

Casavant's recommendations include third-party oversight of the Conservation Officer Service, training on how to manage public expectations and a review of internal policies.

"I don't think it's appropriate to have policy that is not reflective of public expectation," he said.

Casavant is not the only one to think so.

The Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, a non-profit animal protection group, is appealing a B.C. Supreme Court judgement that conservation officers have discretion when destroying wild animals.

The group filed a petition after a black bear cub was killed by a conservation officer near Dawson Creek in May 2016

"What we are looking for is a better understanding of how and when a conservation officer can kill an animal and what is the check list in place," said Lesley Fox, executive director of the group. 

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Environment told CBC that conservation officers are guided by provincial wildlife policy, as well as their experience and expertise, to make decisions in the field.

Using lethal means would be the last resort, the ministry said.

"The primary mandate of the B.C. Conservation Officer Service is public safety and part of that, I think, requires public trust," Fox said. "For us to trust the Conservation Officer Service I think we need some accountability and more transparency." 

To hear more, click on the audio link below:

With files from All Points West and George Baker.