When he refused to kill two orphaned bear cubs, B.C. conservation officer Bryce Casavant put his career on the line. But he also sparked a needed debate about the morality of killing “problem” animals.
The incident that triggered this controversy occurred near Port Hardy three weeks ago, after the mother of the cubs was shot for raiding a freezer. Despite being ordered to destroy the eight-week-olds, Casavant took them to a local animal shelter for treatment.
For this act of human decency, Casavant was suspended. He remains at home while the Environment Ministry, where he works, conducts an assessment of his actions.
But it is not Casavant the ministry should be investigating. It is the government’s policy.
For the statistics make grim reading. In the past four years, conservation officers destroyed 352 cougars, provincewide.
To put that in context, hunters shoot fewer than 100 cougars a year on Vancouver Island — which has the highest density of these animals in North America.
Over the past decade, conservation officers, along with RCMP staff, killed almost 300 grizzly bears in B.C. That’s more than the grizzly population in the south Chilcotin.
And while it’s hard to keep up with the number of black bears exterminated, an estimated 1,870 have been killed since 2011.
A caution is needed here. This is not a tale of reckless slaughter. This is a tale of slaughter carried out in pursuit of a policy the ministry honestly believes in, indeed sees no alternative to.
And there are some limited defences that can be offered. Cougars are difficult to relocate. They don’t tolerate sedatives well, and an animal released in a different part of the province might be killed by the resident alpha male.
Wildlife officials can also claim some success relocating grizzlies and black bears.
But the unanswered question is why so many of these largely peaceful animals are killed in the first place. There is scant statistical evidence that human lives are being lost in numbers that compel such actions.
Since the late 1800s, only seven British Columbians have been killed by cougars. That’s about one every 17 years. Over the same period, grizzlies have killed just five people, and black bears, nine.
That’s hardly a massive death toll. Bee stings and lightning kill more people.
Moreover, the vast majority of bear attacks occur when someone either stumbles on the animal unexpectedly or gets between a mother and her cubs. These are defensive reactions, not instances of deliberate predation, and provide no reason to kill the bear.
The species at fault is us. Most of the cougars put down by wildlife officers were encountered in urban communities. They come here for the deer we allow to proliferate in our parks and gardens, and for the raccoons that live out of our trash cans.
Unfortunately, these realities won’t change any time soon. We’re not going to rid our cities of deer.
But what can change is the shoot-first policy the ministry too often employs. Wildlife experts from other jurisdictions believe much more can be done to relocate animals, in particular bear cubs.
The problem, of course, is money. A bullet costs $1.50, while relocating wildlife is much more expensive. And the Environment Ministry, like the rest of government, is strapped for funds.
But at its most basic, this isn’t a question of finance, it’s a question of morality.
After the ministry completes its investigation of Casavant and, we hope, reinstates him, it owes us an answer to this question: Is it true that B.C. lags behind some other jurisdictions in the humane treatment of wildlife, and what steps will be taken to make us leaders in this field?