Trial held for owner of Whitehorse properties where bears fed on used cooking oil

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A 2018 photo of a lot in Whitehorse's McRae neighbourhood covered with old vehicles and plastic jugs containing used cooking oil. A trial for the property's owner, who is charged with violations of Yukon's Wildlife Act, took place last week. (Court exhibit - image credit)
A 2018 photo of a lot in Whitehorse's McRae neighbourhood covered with old vehicles and plastic jugs containing used cooking oil. A trial for the property's owner, who is charged with violations of Yukon's Wildlife Act, took place last week. (Court exhibit - image credit)

The trial for the owner of two Whitehorse properties where bears fed on jugs of unsecured, used cooking oil, leading to at least three animals needing to be euthanized, was held in territorial court last week.

Michele Palma, a Dawson City resident, and his business, the Dawson Group of Companies, face two counts each under the Yukon's Wildlife Act of failing to comply with dangerous wildlife protection orders after allegedly failing to clean up a lot in the McRae subdivision as well as the backyard of a nearby home in 2018.

Conservation officers Aaron Koss-Young and Matthew Hall testified on Sept. 7 and 8 that they responded to a call on July 5, 2018 about a bear eating garbage at a residence. They learned there had been nightly bear activity at the neighbouring lot on Boulder Road, and went to investigate.

Both officers said they saw vast quantities of cooking oil being stored in plastic jugs, many of which showed evidence of being chewed on by bears. They also said they saw several areas where the oil had seeped into the soil.

The officers described the property as a "junkyard" that also contained dozens of decrepit vehicles, some of which were crammed full of oil jugs.

Hall testified the site "smelled like walking into a greasy fast-food restaurant."

Court exhibit
Court exhibit

'I've never seen anything like that'

The officers set up traps and returned that night. Koss-Young and Hall said a black bear walked past a trap without showing any interest, jumped into the bed of a pickup truck, picked up a plastic jug with its mouth and carried it over to a lightly forested area, where it punctured the container to drink the contents.

Hall said the bear was not fazed by his and Koss-Young's presence and appeared to have been feeding on oil at the site for a long time. He testified that he shot the animal, believing it posed a threat to public safety.

Hall said they had difficulty picking up the bear afterwards because "every inch of his fur was totally saturated in cooking grease."

"I've never seen anything like that," he said.

In total, Hall and Koss-Young shot three bears that were accustomed to feeding on the oil at the lot. They later trapped and relocated a grizzly bear and her cub, believing the animals had just discovered the site and had not yet become food-habituated.

Food-habituated bears, Koss-Young explained, pose a public safety threat because they can become aggressive while defending their food sources and more bold in approaching humans. He testified there was an increase in human-bear conflicts within a two-kilometre radius of the lot, including reports of bears chasing people on ATVs and, in one instance, a bear entering a home while people were inside.

Court exhibit
Court exhibit

Koss-Young testified that he also responded to a call from a homeowner on Esker Drive, in the Copper subdivision, who reported a bear in their yard that hadn't reacted to being sprayed in the face with bear spray.

The bear left before Koss-Young arrived. However, while checking the area, Koss-Young said he discovered a house that had jugs of cooking grease, identical to the ones at the lot, in the backyard as well as a ripped-open trailer. Some of the jugs had bear bite-marks on them, he testified, and the ground was soaked in oil.

The officers issued dangerous protection orders to Palma to clean up both properties. However, they said follow-up inspections showed the oil at the lot, instead of being completely removed, had been transferred into open metal drums or emptied into vehicles. The contaminated soil at the site hadn't been removed either, and while the jugs were removed from the home, the oil-soaked dirt remained, the conservation officer testified.

'More important things to do' than clean up, business partner says

Palma, who didn't have a lawyer, called one witness to the stand Sept. 9.

Jozsef Suska testified that he had rented the lot from Palma and was using it to store cooking oil he was converting into biofuel.

He openly admitted to not cleaning up the site within the 10-day deadline given by conservation officers.

"I had more important things to do than to remove the oil right away," he said, testifying it took a year to fully remove. He also said his workers dropped oil off at the Esker Drive address because they "got confused," explaining that he ran a "messy operation" with oil stored at 10 different locations.

Suska and his company, Budget Towing, had faced five charges under various legislation in relation to the cooking oil, including encouraging dangerous wildlife to become a nuisance. He pleaded guilty to the charges in February 2020.

In closing arguments, Palma claimed he had never received the dangerous wildlife protection orders from conservation officers, and that because the oil wasn't his, he shouldn't be held liable. He also argued the oil was sitting on adjacent city and territorial government property, not within the boundaries of his lot.

Crown attorney Kelly McGill argued Palma, as the property owner, was still responsible for ensuring the orders were complied with, and that photos of the scene clearly showed multiple oil containers well within the lot. She also argued the court had "more than enough" evidence that dangerous wildlife had been attracted to the area.

Judge Karen Ruddy will deliver her decision at a later date.

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