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

Media coverage routinely refers to the biologist’s scientific work, but what is actually being done?

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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