How bear expert Lynn Rogers can coexist with Minnesota DNR

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 5, 2013 - 6:24 PM

Researcher’s supporters need to help him publish his work.

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Oct. 4, 2010: Lynn Rogers with Brave Heart, one of the collared black bears in his study.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Lynn Rogers’ black bear den cameras, his astounding ability to walk with these creatures through the woods and his beloved-by-tourists North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn., have made him an iconic Northwoods figure and one of the few celebrities in the small universe of bear scientists.

So when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, with whom Rogers has long had tense relations, made a tough call late last month to discontinue the research and education permit that allows the 74-year-old Rogers to put tracking collars on bears and video them in their dens, it was worldwide news.

There was also worldwide outrage among the legions of Rogers’ fans who follow his work on social media and support it financially — close to $700,000 has been raised just for a new learning center, for example. Predictably, a “legal defense fund” donation app quickly appeared on Rogers’ bearstudy.org website after the DNR’s decision, with thousands of dollars already pledged.

But if Rogers’ followers truly want to help him and ensure his controversial bear management theories gain the acceptance needed in scientific circles to change current practices, they need to wield their dollars and their passion more pragmatically. If they’re going to donate and invest their time on Rogers’ behalf, they’d be far more effective if they set up a “Get Published” fund that addresses a key reason he lost the research permit — a dearth of scholarly articles based on his bear data.

In addition to Rogers’ insufficient publication record, the DNR cited public safety concerns about collared and uncollared bears around Ely who get uncomfortably close to humans and are difficult to shoo off. With so many bears in the area and residents feeding them — it’s common practice, said Roger Skraba, a Rogers supporter and former Ely mayor — it’s a stretch to pin the blame solely on bears studied by Rogers.

But it’s easy to see the difficult spot that the DNR found itself in as local citizens and staff raised understandable concerns about the number of bears in the area hand-fed or collared without tranquilizers by Rogers or an assistant. While officials have estimated that as many as 50 bears in the area may have grown accustomed to human contact, Rogers said in an interview that there are 10 collared bears and eight that have worn collars in the past. That’s still a concerning number.

Had Rogers published peer-reviewed articles analyzing the reams of recent Minnesota bear data he’s collected, he’d have a strong, high-profile body of evidence about the value of his research. An intriguing Rogers theory: that diversionary feeding of bears in populated areas reduces nuisance complaints. Conventional wisdom is that a “fed bear is a dead bear” because bears grow dependent and more aggressive, often getting shot.

To change this long-held bear-management approach, Rogers needs to publish prolifically. This is how the body of scientific knowledge in all disciplines is built and improved upon. Not publishing often enough — even though the DNR told him repeatedly over the past two years that he needed to publish to maintain the permit — meant that eventually the agency would decide the risks of his research outweighed the benefits. The bad blood between Rogers and the agency made that likely sooner vs. later.

This page didn’t just take the DNR’s word for it that Rogers’ more recent publication record is lacking. An editorial writer asked several respected wildlife scientists to review the publication list on Rogers’ website. While they said the public outreach Rogers does has value, the scholarly work drawing upon his Minnesota bear data was generally dubbed “thin.’’

Rogers and his assistant defended his work this week and said the DNR has falsified bear complaints and thwarted publication by not letting him cite data, among other things.

But the fact that Rogers and his assistant spent the past winter writing an 80-plus-page response to DNR permit concerns instead of publishing their research is revealing. So is the information he provided about on­going management responsibilities at the Bear Center (which can still operate without this permit), suggesting he’s spread too thin.

The dollars in a “Get Published” fund could be used to hire the additional staff Rogers clearly needs to organize, write and edit the valuable data he’s collected. Rogers’ fans also need to gently but firmly talk to him about time management. Publication of his research should be a priority, not writing book-length rebuttals to the DNR.

Rogers this week announced he’s petitioning Gov. Mark Dayton for help. A more productive step would be providing the DNR with a calm response outlining the publication dates and an ultimate time frame for his work. That may not have been enough to get the permit back, but perhaps it could be an opening and an opportunity for both him and the agency to coexist.

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