A Dawson City man and his company must pay $30,000 for failing to ensure the timely clean-up of cooking oil left outside at two Whitehorse properties that attracted bears to the area — three of which had to be euthanized.
Territorial court Judge Karen Ruddy handed down fines to Michele Palma and the Dawson Group of Companies Ltd. (DGC) in a Whitehorse courtroom Friday afternoon.
Palma and DGC were found guilty of three counts of failing to comply with a dangerous wildlife protection order — an offence under the territorial Wildlife Act — in April after a three-day trial last fall.
The case marked the first time anyone has ever been charged with failure to comply with a dangerous wildlife protection order since the legislation was put in place.
The charges against Palma and DGC date back to 2018, when conservation officers responded to reports of bear activity in Whitehorse's McRae subdivision. Officers discovered vast quantities of used cooking oil haphazardly stored in plastic jugs at an industrial lot on Boulder Road, with a number of the jugs showing evidence that bears had punctured the containers to access their contents.
'Smelled like walking into a greasy fast-food restaurant'
At trial, the conservation officers described the property as a "junkyard" that also contained dozens of decrepit vehicles, some of which were crammed full of oil jugs, and said the site "smelled like walking into a greasy fast-food restaurant."
One of the officers also discovered jugs of used cooking oil in a wooden trailer in the backyard of a nearby house on Esker Drive after responding to a call about a bear in a yard that didn't respond to getting hit with bear spray.
Conservation officers ultimately put down three black bears that had become used to feeding on the oil and no longer reacted to human presence. They also later relocated a grizzly sow and cub found at the industrial lot that hadn't yet become food-habituated.
While the cooking oil didn't belong to Palma — it was placed there by his business partner Jozsef Suska, who separately pleaded guilty to other Wildlife Act offences — Palma owned the Esker Drive house, and he and DGC were in charge of the Boulder Road industrial lot.
Conservation officers served him with dangerous wildlife protection orders, requiring that both properties be cleaned up within a set amount of time. However, officers conducting follow-up inspections after the deadlines found the oil at the lot, instead of being completely removed, had been transferred into open metal drums or emptied into vehicles. The oil-soaked dirt hadn't been removed either, and while the plastic jugs at the home were removed, the contaminated soil was also still there.
Crown lawyer Kelly McGill had asked that Palma and DGC be fined $15,000 and $35,000, respectively, for the failure to comply with the order for the industrial lot. She also asked that Palma be fined $10,000 for the failure to comply with the order for the home on Esker Drive, for a collective amount of $60,000.
Palma, meanwhile, maintained that he had little to do with the situation and that it was ultimately Suska who was at fault. He asked for fines of $100 to $200 per charge, rejecting the idea that he was responsible for the situation at all.
'Significant' fine needed but not as high as Crown suggests, judge says
In her oral sentencing decision, Ruddy acknowledged Palma didn't play an active role in creating the situation, but said that as the owner or person in charge of both the lot and house, he still had the responsibility to ensure compliance with the dangerous wildlife protection orders.
While the black bears were euthanized before Palma was served, Ruddy said they helped illustrate the "very real" potential harm to wildlife that could have been caused by allowing the situation to continue. She also noted that the house and industrial lot were either in or near residential areas, creating a potential threat to public safety, and that the relocation of the grizzly and her cub, which took place after the orders were issued, illustrated the "actual harm" caused by not properly cleaning up the cooking oil.
Palma's suggested fines, Ruddy continued, were "completely inconsistent" with the law, explaining that she thought the amount needed to be "significant" to account for the seriousness of the situation. However, Ruddy said she didn't think the fines needed to be as high as the Crown had suggested, stating that she thought Palma had lower culpability than Suska and that the properties, in the end, were ultimately cleaned up.
Ruddy fined DGC and Palma $15,000 and $10,000, respectively, for the charges related to the industrial lot, and Palma an additional $5,000 for the charge related to the Esker Drive home.
Palma and DGC will have 18 months to pay. Half of the fines will be donated to the territorial Turn in Poachers and Polluters (TIPP) line.
Palma declined to speak to the CBC afterwards other than to say, "I didn't do anything."