- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2001

A Stafford County, Va., man could be jailed for six months, fined $1,000 and forced to pay an additional $1,000 replacement fee if convicted of killing a 200-pound black bear that got too close to his home.
The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries charged Robert Ooten — a U.S. Army master sergeant who has served for 20 years — with one misdemeanor count of killing a bear outside of a legal hunting season.
The charge has Sgt. Ootens attorney outraged.
"When society values the life of a bear more than the life of a man, something is seriously wrong," said Steven Webster.
Authorities, convinced Sgt. Ooten was in no immediate danger, charged him this week for the May 19 shooting of the medium-sized adult male bear, which had been rummaging in the homeowners garbage.
The bear was likely one of at least three that have been raiding trash cans and birdfeeders in the Berea Woods and Rocky Run areas of Stafford County for the past few weeks, according to the game department.
Mr. Webster said the creatures had been frequenting Sgt. Ootens home, prompting him to call the local sheriffs office several times. On the night of May 19, the sergeant encountered two bears.
"He was threatened by it," said Mr. Webster, who would not allow his client to comment on the case.
Much like Mr. Webster, Capt. Mike Bise of the game department did not provide many details, but said Sgt. Ooten was charged because he handled the situation incorrectly.
Residents are urged to chase off bears by yelling or hitting pots and pans. The bears generally will move on.
State law allows homeowners to defend themselves from a bear attack, or the threat of an attack.
"If we had evidence indicating it was self-defense, we would not have placed the charge," Capt. Bise said.
The trial is expected to begin in July.
Biologists estimate there are 4,000 or more black bears in Virginia, mostly in the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on the North Carolina border.
But "they roam quite a bit, so we have had sightings across the state," said Julia Dixon Smith, a game department spokeswoman.
The black bear population in Virginia has grown in recent years due to the restoration of forests and conservative hunting programs. In some areas, the population is growing 10 percent to 12 percent a year.
Its a phenomenon spreading all over the eastern United States, said state biologist David Steffen. "Whats been happening in Stafford County is happening all over the East. Bears are showing up," he said.
A 17-member Virginia task force recently drafted a black bear management plan. Mr. Steffen said the replacement fee is "to compensate the public for the loss of this public resource," adding that it is hard to put a dollar value on wildlife.
The state has a bear-hunting season stretching from October to January. Licensed hunters are allowed only one kill, and the bear must weigh more than 100 pounds. Mother bears with cubs are off limits.
Stafford County is one jurisdiction that has no bear-hunting season.
Homeowners who see bears in their neighborhood should remove bird feeders and keep trash secure. Generally, if a bear is unable to find food, it will move on.
Capt. Bise said nuisance bears in urban areas are trapped, relocated and harassed, a technique to keep the animals fearful of humans. In more rural areas with suitable bear habitat, bears are harassed but not moved.
In neighboring Maryland, nuisance bears have become such a problem in the western counties that several lawmakers, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany Democrat, are calling for the first bear-hunting season since 1953.


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