ADA — Ted Burns, a 52-year-old Byng resident who owns 300 acres, was about to brush his teeth just after 7 a.m. June 11 when he heard a loud noise on his back porch. He went to the glass back door and was astonished to see a black bear standing on its hind legs looking through the door.
The bear, Burns said, was about two to three feet away from him. Burns said he and the bear retreated in opposite directions.
“It was really a big shock,” Burns said. “It was really a traumatic experience, the whole thing.”
The bear had knocked over a 55-gallon barrel Burns kept on his porch to store bags of animal feed, causing the loud noise. A critter had managed to get into the barrel before, so Burns had placed a concrete block on top of the container to keep what he thought were raccoons from raiding the feed again.
Burns backed away from the glass door and told his girlfriend, Janie Curtis, there was a bear outside. When they went outside to investigate, Burns said the bear had retreated to some distance but was returning toward the yard of the residence.
“When we went outside to see if we could locate the bear, I didn’t have a firearm,” Burns said. “When I saw that he was coming back, I went and got my firearm.”
Burns said the bear wasn’t moving fast but was steadily approaching him.
“He wasn’t afraid, and he wasn’t leaving,” Burns said. “The bear was heading steadily toward me, looking directly at me and partially upright. At that point, I felt like my livestock and I were in danger. I fired one shot, striking the bear, and it went down. I fired a second shot, which may or may not have struck the bear.”
He said his adrenaline was going and his heart was pounding during the incident. He said on a scale of one to 10, his fear level was about 20.
“(My grandkids) play out in the yard on their swings and their little battery cars,” Burns said. “I have a neighbor who lives a little further down the hill, and she’s got two children that are the same age as my grandkids and they play out in their yard, too. It’s something I don’t want out in my yard while my grandkids are playing. They say (black bears) are shy, make noises and they’ll go away. Well, this one wasn’t shy, and he didn’t go away.”
Feeling that shooting the bear was justified, Burns called a game warden. Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Game Warden Tyler Howser later arrived and conducted an investigation.
Burns said Howser completed his investigation, collected the bear’s carcass and left. Burns said about five days later, he was surprised when he received a citation for killing the bear.
Howser filed an incident report, in which he stated he believed that Burns had pursued the bear.
“I asked Burns why he felt it was necessary to kill the bear dead instead of allowing it to run away,” Howser said in the report. “Burns responded that he did not want something like a black bear in his backyard. Burns also stated he did not want the bear to come back while his grandchildren were in the backyard playing.”
Burns contacted his attorney, Kurt Sweeney of Ada, and, after some discussion, pleaded no contest, paid a fine of $946 and received a 90-day deferred sentence.
Burns said after several news reports about the incident, including one in The Ada News, he received support from many of his neighbors, but he also received calls from people around the country wanting to know why he killed the bear.
Sweeney contacted The Ada News to say his client wanted to tell his side of the story.
Burns said he felt threatened by the bear and would have fought the ticket, but a fight would have cost much more than just paying the fine.
“We felt like if we took it to a jury, they might very well acquit him, but Ted would have had to spend several thousand dollars to get to that point,” Sweeney said. “We couldn’t deny the fact that he shot it, we admitted that, but we felt that there was ... extenuating circumstances. He’s not even a hunter.”
Sweeney said Burns also faced paying $10,000 to $20,000 in restitution to the state for shooting the bear.
Burns also told The Ada News he didn’t believe he had pursued the bear, that he was defending himself and his property. He said he told Howser this information during the initial investigation.
When reached for comment Friday, Howser said he stands by his investigation.
“The incident statement is factual information,” Howser said. “It’s not anything that I took and made details up to fill in gray areas. I went there, that’s what he told me, that’s what I saw as far as the evidence was concerned. That’s what I reported on, and that’s how the decision was made to do what was done...he went and (pleaded) no contest and paid (the fine).”
Burns said he believes the way the word "pursued" was used in the incident report, made it sound like he chased the bear down.
“The Oklahoma wildlife department made it sound like I grabbed my gun, jumped in my truck, chased it down in the pasture and shot it,” Burns said.
Howser told The Ada News that Burns pursued the bear by leaving the safety of his own home, and the definition of "pursued" can be taken in different ways.
“You can take 'pursue' as somebody ran five miles, or you can take it as, they went after something for just a few yards,” Howser said. “The verbiage he used with me, I put in my incident statement.”
Howser said a person is justified in shooting a bear if the person or property, such as livestock, is in imminent danger — an immediate threat to life.
Burns said he wished the bear had never visited his house under the circumstances in which he said it happened.
“This was $946 well spent to insure the safety of my livestock, my family and my neighbors,” he said.
He said he loves seeing wildlife on his land, just not on his back porch.
“I hang out on the river all the time there,” Burns said. “If he’d have been in his habitat, and I’d have been observing him and he wasn’t going to cause any threat towards me, I’d have enjoyed watching him, but he was in my habitat.”
“He doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t fish,” Curtis said. “We have feeders on our land. We feed deer, turkey, and he doesn’t even allow hunting on the land.”
Curtis and Burns said the food storage barrel had been tampered with before, but they thought raccoons had done it.
“I truly believe he’d been there before,” Curtis said. “He knew where he was at, he knew where he was going, and he was coming back exactly the same way that he left.”
Burns said the last thing they ever expected to see on their back porch was a bear.
“You don’t know what happened before until you say, ‘Oh, there’s been a bear on the porch. Maybe that’s why that was knocked over or this was like this, ’” he said.
Burns said before the incident, one of his goats disappeared, and he believes the bear may have taken it.
Black bear behavior and nuisance bears
According to wildlife experts, black bear attacks on people in the United States are rare, but they do happen. Fatal attacks are even more rare, a little over 60 since 1900. The range for black bears, and humans, is expanding. Experts predict interactions between the two are bound to increase. Micah Holmes, information supervisor with ODWC, said the black bear’s range in Oklahoma is definately expanding westward.
According to an article in the Southwest Farm Press, Chip Leslie, unit leader and part of the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources at Oklahoma State University, said bears will roam, especially if they are younger bears and it is mating season — summer.
“Young males really do tend to disperse. It’s often those bears that are getting into trouble,” Leslie said. “They get hit by cars on the highway or get hungry, (develop) not-so-good habits and start breaking into campsites and houses.”
In fact, the bear Ted Burns shot was a young male.
Holmes said it is not uncommon for bears to get into trash and food bins.
“It’s pretty normal for bears to get into trouble sometimes,” Holmes said, “They get into trash cans and bird feeders and things like that. And most of the time, it’s a situation where humans can modify their behavior just a little bit by using a bear-proof trash can or by not putting bird feeders so close to the house or putting the cat food up at night. Things like that.”
Holmes said people with nuisance bear problems are encouraged to call the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. ODWC Game wardens can be reached at the following numbers:
• Pontotoc County: Dale Stites — (580) 399-9289.
• Coal County: Todd Smith — (580) 927-5071.
• Seminole County: Tyler Howser — (405) 380-8995.
• Murray County: Casey Young — (580) 618-0044.
•Hughes County: Tom Cartwright — (405) 380-6729.
• Garvin: Terry Springwater — (405) 238-1785.
• Johnston County: Curtis Latham— (580) 320-2948 or Bud Cramer Jr. — (580) 320-2950.
“In some cases, a bear is just a problem bear,” Holmes said. “He’s just a nuisance bear that’s going to keep coming back. In those situations, if folks will call us and say, ‘Hey, this bear is too close to my house and causing a problem,’ we’ll come out and asses the situation.”
Holmes said sometimes, the ODWC will offers tips on how a resident can bear-proof a home by keeping things bears like to eat locked up tight.
“In some situations, the bear just needs to be removed,” Holmes said. “Especially if it’s threatening somebody or someone feels threatened, we’ll come out and trap it. Our guys are real good at trapping bears. They have a pretty high success rate.”
Holmes said there is more than one way to deal with a trapped nuisance bear.
“Just put a tag (to track the animal) on it or just move it to another place, or, unfortunately we may have to euthanize the bear,” he said.
The black bear
Black bears are the smallest North American bears. Males are usually 24 to 36 inches tall and weigh 150 to 300 pounds. Females are smaller. Some extraordinary males can weigh up to 600 pounds.
According to National Geographic, black bears are very opportunistic eaters. Most of their diet consists of grasses, roots, berries and insects. They will also eat fish and mammals — including carrion — and easily develop a taste for human foods and garbage.
Bears who become habituated to human food at campsites, cabins, or rural homes can become dangerous and are often killed.