Research bears, even those wearing radio collars adorned with brightly colored ribbons, will be fair game for northern Minnesota hunters again this fall, Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Monday.
The declaration brought an expression of dismay from Minnesota's best-known bear researcher and is likely to provoke discussion among bear watchers across Minnesota and even nationwide.
Landwehr told Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers that neither his bears nor radio-collared DNR bears will be off-limits to hunting, as Rogers and thousands of his supporters had asked.
Two of Rogers' bears were killed by hunters last year, and as many as nine DNR study bears were shot.
"Placing a collar and flagging on a game animal shouldn't 'reserve' it for one individual or group," Landwehr said. "Even in the name of research, individuals or groups shouldn't be allowed to pre-empt legal harvest."
However, Landwehr said he hopes hunters will voluntarily resist shooting collared bears. Fourteen bears will wear Rogers' collars this fall.
"I'm very disappointed," Rogers said. "I was really counting on the commissioner to come through on this."
Controversial among some bear researchers, Rogers, 71, has habituated generations of the same families of bears, and some of the animals allow him and other researchers and students to follow them through the woods to study their habits and foods.
Additionally, using a "den cam," he broadcast over the Internet last winter and this winter the births of three cubs to a mother bear he calls Lily.
But "protecting radio-collared bears from hunters would be largely unenforceable," Landwehr said. "Most bears are taken in low light at dawn and dusk, and it is very likely a hunter could fail to distinguish a marked bear. We don't want to prosecute people for honest mistakes."
Countered Rogers: "Asking hunters to look for a gaudy ribbon on a bear is much less of a burden than asking them to look for a 3-inch antler on a deer." At least one antler has to measure 3 inches for a buck to be legal in Minnesota.
Rogers has a sometimes rocky history with the DNR, under whose authority he conducts his studies. The agency pulled his research permit in the mid-1990s, but has since renewed it.
Rogers first studied Ely area bears in the 1970s, beginning with the U.S. Forest Service and now with two groups he founded, including the North American Bear Center near Ely, a $1.1 million interpretive center he personally financed.
In recent years, Rogers has become a star among legions of online followers. Tens of thousands of people watched the cub births, and more follow Rogers' bears on Facebook and elsewhere online. (The den camera can be viewed at www.bear.org.)
Landwehr said Rogers' research is "popular and interesting," but "not essential to managing bear populations in Minnesota." Rogers argues that this research, which in part centers on helping people to more broadly understand black bear behavior, is critical to an American society that is increasingly encroaching on wild lands.
"Ely has benefited a lot by these bears," Rogers said, noting that online supporters helped secure $100,000 for the DNR's nearby Bearhead Lake State Park, and $20,000 for Ely schools to upgrade their computers.
The Ely City Council in December voted unanimously to support protection of the bears.
Dennis Anderson • 612-673-4424