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If bear 'research' justifies his privileges, Lynn Rogers might show us the results

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Because independent-minded individuals make more sympathetic characters than bureaucracies and their agents, Rogers has come off as a quirky character who has made some enemies over 46-year career devoted to "research" and "studies" along lines that aren't exactly defined.

Motivated by fairness, and fortified by a quantity of iced coffee, I spent a fair portion of yesterday afternoon perusing Permit Perspectives, the 82-page rebuttal document that Lynn Rogers has assembled in defense of his work with black bears and posted online.

I started to write "research" there, instead of work, but couldn't do it without wrapping the word in quotation marks. So I guess I've tipped my hand right at the start.

The Rogers saga is a long and complicated one, in which the venerable biologist, who holds a PhD, claims decades of persecution by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the DNR asserts that Rogers has abused the privileges granted him under permits for scientific study.

Press coverage of this rift has been even-handed in the sense that it lays out each side's arguments without necessarily digging very far into the details underneath:

  • DNR says Rogers' practice of hand-feeding bears to keep them close, for radio-collaring and observation, has created a public-safety risk by making them more likely to approach other humans; Rogers says there is no risk.
  • Rogers says DNR employees have falsified reports of bad bear behavior associated with his work; DNR denies it would ever do such a thing.
  • DNR says Rogers isn't publishing his research in the standard ways; Rogers says he is so, and anyway his webcam feeds are research, too.

Because independent-minded individuals make more sympathetic characters than bureaucracies and their agents, Rogers has come off as a quirky character who has made some enemies over 46-year career devoted to "research" and "studies" along lines that aren't exactly defined.

He has also gathered a considerable public following in the Ely area and beyond, which no doubt helped him gain an audience with Gov. Mark Dayton in a meeting set for next Monday, in which Rogers will try to get the governor to overrule the DNR and renew his special permits.

Just one question

If I were the governor, this would be my first — perhaps only — question for Lynn Rogers:

What scientific findings of usefulness to a wider world have emerged from your hand-feeding, strolling in the woods, intimate videotaping and other "research" with black bears in the 13 years you've held special permits granted by this state?

A consistent theme running through Rogers' Permit Perspectives is that, contrary to the stern  advice of the DNR — and also, it should be noted, a host of other authorities — feeding bears is not necessarily a bad thing for bears or for people.

In other words, the standard cautionary maxim that "a fed bear is a dead bear," because it will eventually stray too close for human safety and comfort, ain't necessarily so.

Permit Perspectives spotlights a paper that Rogers published in 2011, in the peer-reviewed journal Human-Wildlife Interactions. From the abstract:

Diversionary feeding of black bears (Ursus americanus) around campgrounds and residential areas has received little study because of concerns that it might create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety. To evaluate those concerns and assess its effectiveness in  mitigating  human–bear  conflict,  we  studied  diversionary  feeding,  habituation,  and  food- conditioning at a U.S. Forest Service campground and residential complex near Ely, Minnesota. During 1981 to 1983, 6 bears (2/year) had been removed from this area as nuisances; but during 8 years of diversionary feeding (1984 to 1991), the only removals were 2 bears that had newly immigrated to the periphery of the study area and had not yet found the diversionary feeding site. The reduction in nuisance activity was significant, despite continued availability of garbage and the fact that the study bears were habituated and food-conditioned. No bear that visited the diversionary-feeding site became a nuisance or jeopardized public safety, even in 1985, the year with the lowest bear food index and the highest number of nuisance complaints ever recorded throughout Minnesota. Diversionary feeding led to greater tolerance of bears by residents. My  data  indicate that  hunger,  not  habituation  and  food-conditioning,  creates bear–human conflicts.

Note that while the paper was published during the time Rogers held his research permit — and after the DNR had notified him he was at risk of losing it for nonpublication, among other reasons — it is based on observations made long before the permit was granted in 1999.

And, anyway, what value does this finding have to anyone concerned about minimizing bear-human conflicts, whether a wildlife manager or park ranger or rural landowner?

I like bears. I have enjoyed seeing them in state parks along the North Shore, and also along the St. Croix, and just several weeks ago along the Namekagon River. I have been thrilled to see one crossing the deck of my home in western Wisconsin, a mere half-hour drive from DNR headquarters — despite the loss of a couple of bird feeders I took down later in the spring than I might have. It never occurred to me to call the bear cops.

But I also know what it's like to live in a place — Boulder, Colo. — where bear-human conflicts are frequent and serious enough to be a public concern, and I wonder what the implications of Rogers' findings might be for managing that situation, which more than once required me to run a bear out of the yard with shouts and pebbles.

That homeowners should follow the example of his friends in Eagles Nest Township and put out food for the bears, rather than keeping their garbage out of reach? That resource managers should create feeding stations to keep bears away from homes and campgrounds?

A big stake in tourism

I think everybody understands by now that Lynn Rogers has a big investment in his celebrity as the man who walks with bears, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Both Rogers and the Ely tourism industry have a big stake in the North American Bear Center he opened in 2007 and has recently expanded, where large numbers of visitors pay $9.50 a head to view exhibits as well as some live "ambassador" bears that are kept on the property.

Nothing wrong with that, either, but it must be noted that DNR requires no permit for most of the center's tourist-attracting activities — except for the hands-on experience of joining Rogers to actually collar some bears, for which he charges $2,500, according to the Timberjay newspapers.

The Timberjay's Marshall Helmberger has covered Rogers' battle against  the DNR with both a kind heart and a hard nose, I would say, including this recent passage (subscription required):

While Rogers' unique method of bear research was pioneering, he sometimes strayed into questionable territory for a scientist. He was an aggressive public promoter of his own work, and took a commercial approach to funding his studies, offering courses that allowed participants to get close, and even hand feed, wild bears. He also raised tens of thousands of dollars from the enormous publicity generated by the first bear birth ever broadcast live on the Internet.

That young bear cub, named Hope by Rogers' many fans, was eventually abandoned by its mother, which would have normally doomed the cub. But Rogers intervened and fed the young bear until it was able to survive on its own — and raised several hundred thousand dollars in the process from people who followed Hope's saga through daily web updates.

Rogers defended his decision to raise Hope, suggesting that the bear offered unprecedented research potential. He noted that the funds went to pay for his research and to pay off debt from construction of the North American Bear Center, which Rogers helped finance. At the time, however, some officials and commentators complained that Rogers was co-mingling science and commerce more than was appropriate.

Benefit of the doubt

It may be, as the Strib's Dennis Anderson has observed, that the bear center and its webcam broadcasts have, on balance, been good for black bears in Minnesota and beyond.

Because I trust Anderson's reporting, I'm willing to believe his assertion that Rogers and staff have accumulated "reams of valuable data" over the years — that value dependent, of course, on the use to which it's eventually put.

But I will admit that when I first read about the North American Bear Center some years ago I confused it momentarily with the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, operated by the American Bear Association, over near Orr, where feeding on a grand scale draws both bears and tourists in large numbers.

I knew a young man who volunteered there while studying wildlife management at Vermilion Community College, and heard him tell about the cool experience of watching bears come out of the woods to devour piles of discarded pastry and such.

It seems to me that the supposed research mission of Lynn Rogers' operation is the chief thing — perhaps the only thing, really —  that lifts it above the other wildlife sideshows. It's long past time for Rogers to deliver on that purpose, and the special privileges we've given him, with something more substantial than old data and bear-den videos.

* * *

For those interested in Lynn Rogers' full rebuttal to the DNR, Permit Perspectives is available in PDF format here.

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Comments (11)

Lions and bears, oh, my.

I am reminded of a recent television program I saw on the work of George and Joy Adamson, of "Born Free" fame. It was quite disturbing to watch their casual attitude toward safety around lions and other big cats, and later in the show a child was injured and a man was killed by one of the Adamson's "friendly" lions. How much they really contributed to science and to our knowledge of lions I don't know, but I can't imagine anyone conducting research like that today -- other than Lynn Rogers.

Misunderstanding WRI research

Although Mr. Reador asserts he has read Dr. Roger's defense of his research, the mistakes and misunderstandings in Reador's recent piece contradict his assertion. It leads the reader to question his objectivity and desire to offer useful commentary on the situation of the WRI.

I will mention two: he quotes Mr Helmberger saying that Dr. Roger's "...fed the young bear [Hope] until it was able to survive on its own..." Many people can attest that this is incorrect. A simple review of posts on the WRI Facebook page will show that the young bear was fed for a limited time until her mother returned, the two were reunited, and the mother bear continued caring for Hope on her own. The intervention by WRI was limited and also contributed to learning about mother-cub interactions when only one cub is born over the winter.

Secondly, Mr. Reador says, "What scientific findings of usefulness to a wider world have emerged from your hand-feeding, strolling in the woods, intimate videotaping and other "research" with black bears..." A reading of the "Permit Perspectives" and review of WRI website reveals that a major part of the research involves collecting data from radio-collared bears on their setting up and maintaining territories and handling competition; and their frequenting feeding stations or foraging on their own. Apart from the scientific value of this research for understanding bear behavior, this is valuable information for humans who have moved into areas frequented by bears.

The problem is

that the most recent data appears to have been collected in 1985.
And as far as I know it has not been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal not directly connected to Dr. Rogers. He appears to have set up a journal specifically to answer these objections.
I would be delighted if someone can cite a publication meeting conventional scientific standards.

Please clarify the permits

I am not sure exactly what permits Rogers needs from the DNR. Is this MN land or does it belong to Rogers? Even if people don't respect his studies and publications, what will denial of DNR permits do to his operation? Could he simply continue as a "sideshow" or will the Bear Center be shut down?

I confess to being a fan of the videos and the daily logs published by the Bear Center. I've forwarded links to friends and posted them on forums. How valuable the science might be is open to question, but observation of wild animals is more valuable, in my opinion, in this setting than in the zoos we not only tolerate but help finance. Anyone who ever took a child to watch the unspeakably cruel captivity of the Como Zoo's polar bears should be careful of criticizing Rogers' popularization of bear lore. (Yes, for millions of dollars they have finally improved that particular habitat, but the overall justification for zoos is highly suspect.)

Isn't the issue whether the DNR can prove Rogers's bears have endangered human beings? Or is his tagging and tracking them illegal? Could Ron Meador track the bear he saw on his deck without a permit from the DNR? We hear of people chasing off bears all over northern Minnesota and sometimes uncomfortably close to towns and suburban backyards. Those bears endanger humans when they're hungry and will continue to do so no matter how this conflict between Rogers and the DNR plays out.

I don't know enough to favor one side or the other, so I'd appreciate more information. Has the DNR funded what it increasingly considers valueless science? Then it has every right to stop funding Rogers. If the Bear Center is on public land, how did it get clearance to build and staff its operation? And, most important, are bears and people approaching each other incautiously because of Rogers and has anyone been hurt?

webcam

I signed a petition on change.org in support of Dr. Rogers--after I read at least 30 comments by teachers from around the world explaining how valuable the Bear Center webcam was for their students, how it got the students involved and interested, and how it helped to replace fear with knowledge. There were many other comments--from people across this country and around the world--explaining how they valued the webcam and information on the website.--how knowledge helped prevent bear-human conflict by teaching ways to not attract bears into one's yard or campsite, and by not panicking and creating a situation where the DNR would have to be called in to kill the bear (usually a mother).
Dr. Rogers has been in conflict with bear hunters in the area, as he has asked them not to kill his collared bears. Bear hunters bait bears, thus making them easy targets. The DNR has shown consistent favoring of hunting--establishing an unpopular wolf hunting and trapping season immediately upon delisting of the wolf from the endangered species list, keeping the moose season open until the numbers dropped precipitously, and now going after Dr. Rogers. At the same time, the DNR lands and minerals division is actively promoting sulfide mining in the region of prime wildlife habitat, including adjacent to the Bear Center and Eagle's Nest Lake. There seems to be something amiss here--and I hope that Governor Dayton has the good sense to support Dr. Rogers and the role he is playing to help us understand wildlife.--which are being increasingly threatened on a global level.

DNR and Rogers

It seems to be a problem for the media and some fans to differentiate between the WRI and the NABC. The NABC did not lose their permit. They will still be operating and bringing fans in to see the bear museum and learn about bears. The WRI ...Rogers Research institute DID lost it's permit for violating the conditions he was given. He did not do the peer reviewed research as requested. Does this mean the end of his career or the end of the tourist money for the town? NO, as most people could not afford the 2000 plus fee for a 3 day up close with the bears class. They can still get up close at the NABC though. The only thing Rogers lost with that permit is the habituation of more and more bears because he can not collar them. He can still walk in the woods and study them but he can not do any more classes to go out and see the wild bears. He can not intrude on their dens anymore so that they can have normal bear lives in the woods.
As said on another article recently, entertainment and bringing money to the town is not research. Research has set standards and he has not done the research. It has become a game of cat and mouse...they threaten..he says ok I will do some to make you happy..does it and then doesn't do it the next time. So, for FACTS...He did not lose his ability to research, he did not lose the ability to go in the woods and see and watch his bears, he did not lose the ability to compile all his "data", he did not lose the ability to educate kids, who do not need "research data" but just general info on bears anyway, he did not lose the ability to take pictures of them, he did not lose the NABC permit which brings a LOT of people in, more so than a few small classes each summer that gives HIM the money. He did not lose many things. What he lose was...FACT...he lost collaring bears, intruding on their dens with den cams and taking classes out in the woods for petting and feeding trips basically. We have to keep sensationalism and emotionalism separate from the FACTS. This is not some persecution by the DNR against Rogers. Had he just done what he was told about the research he would not be sitting here. And this is not the first time this has happened.

Rogers and the Permit

Also, on the bears being a nuisance, people need to know that the permit required Rogers to tag all the bears with a tag that could be seen from a distance, give the DNR the telemetry signals for each bear and to NOT change their collars, and to give DNA samples of the bears so unless Rogers is swapping collars it would be fairly easy for the DNR to know which bear was which. This was done because of the problem with the bears and to be able to identify the bears. There were incidents and Rogers can say all he wants that the bears will not attack but black bears are just like any other wild animal..wild. And if I had kids out in the yard, I would not want the bears walking into my yard. Sorry but just as there are rogue humans...there are rogue bears that might act different than the other bears. It is one thing for Rogers to Feed the bears and pet them and another for the bears to come in contact with humans that are not always around bears. Humans could scare the bear into doing something just because the human was scared.

RE: bears are essentially wild, or retain their wildness...

...no matter how much you've modified their behavior or semi-domesticated them by setting out food, hand-feeding, petting, close association, etc.

If in doubt, watch "Grizzly Man".

So collaring is the issue?

I quite agree that I wouldn't want rogue bears walking into my yard. I'm still not clear on whether these particular bears in Rogers's family are the ones that have caused "incidents." If, indeed, those bears are being spotted - because they have the very identifiable tags on them - moving into populated areas, then his program has endangered humans. As I read the daily descriptions of bear behavior in the woods, the frustration for observers is that the bears go deep into the woods where only the staff are willing to attempt to follow them.

Why does the DNR have the right to issue these permits? I really don't mean to be argumentative, I just don't see what their role is. If the University were supporting research and setting criteria for continuing grants, this would all make sense to me. But the DNR is responsible for wildlife management and really shouldn't be defining acceptable research. Rogers's observations recorded in writing and on video would constitute valid data in studies funded by universities. However, his failure to continue summarizing and offering insight into these animals in articles for peer-reviewed journals would be clear reason for denying him academic grants. Whether the studies were of mountain sheep, grouse, or walleye would make no difference in terms of scholarly research.

As for intruding on their lives, the cameras aren't normal, but these bears are certainly no more inconvenienced than all the other animals tracked and observed in their habitat. The webcams are crucial to the widespread participation of schools and wildlife enthusiasts. And, as mentioned above, the DNR is focused on the wellbeing of hunters; it seems disingenuous for them to assert their concern is for the welfare of the bears. Going after Lyn Rogers does smell a bit off, a bit personal. But if his bears have been proven to be threatening humans, then not only should his operation be closed down but his bears should probably be euthanized.

Longitudinal study

I would like to know who makes these decisions regarding valid research? Does the DNR have the qualifications to make this decision? This particular study is a longitudinal study. As the word implies it is a long term study. It is impossible to publish complete results half way through a study. The researcher in question is attempting to study a family or generations ( notice the use of the plural) of black bears. I doubt it is in the job description of DNR to be able to decide what is considered valid research. There job is to check the boxes of requirements. If all the criteria for the permit is met then the permit should be renewed. Reading the criteria published by the government National Parks Omnibus Act 1998 (nps.gov) Dr. Rogers has met all the requirements. I am sure any University research department would validate this research request. Dr. Rogers has published and will continue to educate and publish.

Dual Purpose of Rogers Study groups

Mr Meador, you attempt to present yourself as an objective writer by telling the reader you were "motivated by fairness" and going on to describe yourself as a bear lover, however your attempt to hide you're prejudice falls short when you use such terms as "wildlife sideshow" to describe Dr Rogers operation.I find it disingenuous to allude to the $9.50 admission fee charged by the NABC and the $2,500 fee for Rogers class without pointing out that the NABC is a non profit organization mostly staffed by volunteers and that Rogers does not personally profit from this.Moreover he has basically used his life savings and Federal Pension to fund the building of this Center.I visited him recently to find him wearing the same Jeans and NABC shirt he was wearing 6 years ago,He is also driving the same beat up Green Van he was driving back in 2006.So if he has a coffee can full of cash some where he better use it soon the man is 74 years old.
I think his key research finding was that collaring bears can be done through the scientific principal of Operant conditioning (hand feeding).Putting bears through the trauma of trapping and darting places the animal in danger of injury.Last year a drugged Brown Bear in Yellowstone killed a researchers husband.When Rogers devised this approach he was told it was far too dangerous yet neither him nor any of his assistants has been seriously injured using this technique. Rogers study groups have a dual purpose. They are not simply "money raisers". They get people to lose their fear of bears by getting them close enough to see that they are truly gentle creatures.I took his course twice, Thirty years ago I was out in Montana in the woods with a friend who was armed. We were bluff charged by a bear who stopped inches away from my friend's outstretched arms that embraced his pistol.My friend let out a loud shout and the bear fled.It was a traumatic experience for me and I was convinced that his gun had saved me.I avoided camping and forests with bear poulations,Then in 2005 I had heart surgery and needed to hike as part of recovery. I had to learn to get over my fear.Park lectures about weaing bells,not staring in their eyes and not running away only made me worse. I took Lynn's course and learned that my incident in Montana was a bluff charge and not a bear attack. His gun had nothing to do with the bear turning and retreating, it was standard bear behavior.I learned what timid creatures they are and how most of their behavior
results from fear of humans, I became an avid hiker which aided my recovery and no longer walk with apprehension but actually look foward seeing these creatures in the wild. Lynn Rogers not only changed my life but may have saved it.