A husband and wife who rode their bikes repeatedly through a herd of wild bighorn sheep in Banff National Park in order to get a cellphone picture have been fined $3,000 each in court for disturbing wildlife.
RMO FILE PHOTO
Riding bicycles several times through a herd of bighorn sheep in Banff National Park has cost an Edmonton woman $3,000 and likely jail time for her husband.
In Canmore Provincial Court on Friday (March 3), Ivan and Danuta Dacko were found guilty of unlawfully disturbing wildlife near Two Jack Lake on June 21, 2016, by Judge Les Grieve, who harshly reprimanded the couple for their irresponsible actions at the time, and since.
The Edmontonians were charged after Parks Canada staffer and central witness Isabel Patterson spotted the couple riding their bikes several times through a herd of bighorn sheep at a pullout near Two Jack Lake on the Lake Minnewanka route.
Patterson, who spent the two previous summers with Parks as a Wildlife Guardian, testified that at the time of the incident, she was on picnic patrol and was trying to keep a group of up to 30 people away from a herd of about 20 sheep.
Patterson told court she saw the Dackos ride back and forth through the sheep herd several times, including to check with a tourist and his son they had asked to take pictures of them, “for Facebook.”
After a day-long trial where the Dackos represented themselves, at times with the assistance of a Polish interpreter, and which featured confusion as to court procedure, several discussions as to what was and was not allowed in evidence, a discussion of five photos of the Dackos and sheep and Judge Grieve offering some advice on proper proceedings, he quickly found the pair guilty and delivered federal Crown Prosecutor Anita Szabo's lower recommendation of a $3,000 to $5,000 fine.
The photos alone were all the evidence needed and which Grieve pointed out showed, “Mrs. Dacko within feet of the sheep, smiling and waving, more concerned with the photos than the sheep.”
The photos, said the judge, showed sheep standing and moving away from the couple on their bikes. “This is a disturbance so you could have pictures taken,” he said. “You were both too irresponsible to say ‘I'm sorry.”
In suggesting a fine of $3,000 to $5,000 for disturbing sheep listed as a protected species, where the maximum is $25,000, Szabo said it would be in keeping with the $4,500 fine of a man who swam in a snail pool at the Cave and Basin site, along with recent hefty fines for people leaving out food and garbage that had attracted wolves.
“The message is ‘thou shalt not bike through bighorn sheep,' ” said Szabo.
After announcing $3,000 fines for the Dackos, Ivan, who is currently unemployed, asked the judge if he could go to jail instead of paying a fine.
“In some ways, I'm not surprised by that, Mr. Dacko,” said Grieve. “You were more concerned with getting pictures than with the sheep and now you want taxpayers to keep you in jail rather than paying something that's a deterrence to you.
“This is why we have a national park; we're the ones who are supposed to step back and let them (sheep) do their thing. I can only hope you've learned from this experience. You could have lowered the fine by pleading guilty. Six thousand dollars doesn't begin to cover the cost to Canadian taxpayers.”
Ironically, said the judge, fines paid, if done so by Aug. 1, would go to an environmental damages fund. Another option in lieu of a fine would be community service hours.
After Ivan Dacko's request of jail time instead, and a request from Danuta for a lowering of the fine because they have a family with four children, Grieve said, “I think you'll have nothing in common with people in jail other than you're irresponsible.
“You wouldn't have done this if they were elk and bigger. Everybody knows this was wrong. The other tourists were just sitting back and taking pictures, but no, you wanted an exciting photo of you in the middle of the action. In any other country in the world, they'd probably take you away right away.
“Don't do this again. Let the animals be and enjoy them.”
In the end, while there was much discussion as to what constituted causing bighorn sheep stress, Grieve sided with the testimony of Patterson, who travelled from Prince George, B.C. to testify, and Parks staffer Tristan Thorpe, who testified via CCTV from Scarborough, Ont., concerning the incident, as opposed to the Dackos, who at the end of the trial stated they had no intention of causing the bighorn sheep any distress. Both staffers are completing studies in environmental sciences.
For her part, Patterson said after seeing the Dackos drive through the herd of sheep several times, and noticing that their behaviour suggested they were stressed, she called dispatch and Warden Greg Vecic was dispatched to speak with the couple at their parked motorhome, and charge them.
Dacko asked Patterson and Parks wildlife ecologist David Gummer which was more threatening to sheep – trucks, cars or bicycles. Patterson and Gummer stated bicycles would be, as wildlife is generally not used to them as much as vehicles, and Gummer stated bicycles may be viewed as more of predator-like threat than vehicles.
Finally, Ivan Dacko accused Patterson and Thorpe of inventing their “story” of he and his wife riding through the sheep, with Patterson's motive being revenge because when she asked them to stop, they weren't apologetic enough.
In the end, Grieve said the dispute revolved around how many times the Dackos rode through the sheep herd, not whether they intended to stress the animals.
“The charge is not that you intended to disturb the sheep, the charge is that you did disturb the sheep; not if you did it on purposed or accidentally.
Judge Grieve told the Dackos he saw no reason as to why Patterson or Thorpe would lie to make them look bad or inconvenience them; two people the staffers had never met.
“And no offence, Mr. Dacko, but you're not a very impressive man in remembering past events. I find you not a credible witness and I do not accept your evidence. Your evidence does not raise a doubt in my mind.