The bear whisperer: Scholar plans to expand educational empire

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 16, 2010 - 2:45 PM

But not everyone agrees with the methods of Lynn Rogers, with the Wildlife Research Institute, and the North American Bear Center near Ely.

Deep in a northeastern Minnesota swamp, researcher Lynn Rogers did something few people in the world ever do: He walked toward a wild, free-roaming 400-pound bear. "Here, bear,'' he said soothingly. "Don't be afraid. It's me.''

Rogers had befriended the 8-year-old female bruin as a cub. The Global Positioning System (GPS) on her collar let Rogers know she was nearby. But she wouldn't stop.

Rogers persisted in tracking her, and soon the big bear he calls Braveheart stood a few yards from him. A minute later, the two sat side by side in the swamp while Rogers fed her hazelnuts, checked her heart rate and replaced the batteries in her collar, festooned with brightly colored ribbons.

"There are so many misconceptions about black bears,'' said Rogers, 71. "The most important thing to learn today is how to live with them. People are moving into bear country like never before.''

Rogers' uncanny ability to habituate and "walk'' with bears while studying them has rocketed him to wild-animal superstar status, thanks in large part to a mother bear named Lily and her cub Hope, whose birth Rogers broadcast live worldwide over the Internet in January. Now Rogers -- whose four-decades-long bear research career in Ely has included a rocky relationship with the Department of Natural Resources -- is poised to expand his bear education and research empire, while also arguing his radio-collared bears should be off-limits to hunters.

Supporting him are hundreds of thousands of Facebook, Twitter and Web devotees who watched Hope's birth, and who have since donated $400,000 to two Ely nonprofits Rogers heads: his Wildlife Research Institute, and the expansive North American Bear Center whose construction he personally funded in 2007 with a $1 million loan.

"We need offices for expanding staff and want to add an education building to the Bear Center, with classrooms,'' said Rogers, who holds a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, and once was a member of Mensa.

Though most of Rogers' Web-based fans have never met him or even been to Ely, many are emphatic about the effects he and his bears have on their lives.

"My whole heart and my whole being are devoted to these bears,'' wrote one Facebook follower. "I am forever indebted to Lily for giving me HOPE. ... In good times and bad times, we walk together down this unknown path with each other and our bears. The journey continues and we are blessed to be a part of it!! The magic of HOPE prevails.''

The British Broadcasting Co. will air three TV documentaries this winter featuring Rogers and his research bears, fueling their popularity. And Rogers and his Wildlife Research Institute colleague, Sue Mansfield, are finalizing details to again broadcast live over the Internet from Lily's den when she gives birth in January.

"How Hope in particular responds to the birth of Lily's next cub or cubs will be interesting,'' Rogers said. "Mixed-age black bear litters are rare, and no one has ever seen this played out before in a den.''

Protection from hunters

But in the months ahead, Rogers is likely to also be in the middle of a contentious public relations and legislative debate over whether the dozen or more bears that wear his research collars and roam between Ely and Tower should be protected from hunters. At least one legislator, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, has said she will support a bill to protect bears wearing Rogers' collars.

Rogers supports bear hunting. But in early September, when a yearling research bear named Sarah was shot by a hunter, he fumed. "Ethical hunters are reacting with disgust, saying 'That is not hunting!''' he wrote on the North American Bear Center website (www.bear.org). "It's time for legal protection for radio-collared bears wearing brightly colored ribbons in central St. Louis County.''

Hunters have killed six bears wearing Rogers' research collars since 2005. "These animals are too important for research to be lost this way,'' Rogers said.

Some hunters agree, but many don't. Jim Doerr of Rochester hunts bears in the Ely area. But he was disappointed Rogers criticized hunters after Sarah was shot.

"I think it's selfish on his part to ignore the rights of hunters doing what they're legally entitled to do,'' Doerr said.

DNR bear researchers in Grand Rapids also place collars on research bears, but the agency is not seeking protection for them. It does ask hunters to avoid shooting them. Hunters killed three of these animals this fall.

The hunter who shot Sarah, meanwhile, told the DNR he didn't see her collar until after she was dead. The hunter's name is known to the DNR, but officials say privacy laws prevent the agency from releasing it.

Which is fortunate, said Ely bear-hunting guide Todd Larson, who believes the threat to bear hunters' safety by some hunting opponents among Rogers' online followers is real.

"I hope every hunter that shoots a gun at an animal dies a terrible death that includes their family and friends,'' said one Facebook commenter after Sarah was shot.

Said Rogers: "We don't support those opinions, and we try to moderate our websites to keep that kind of talk off of them.''

A fed bear, a dead bear?

Retired veterinarian Larry Anderson lives in Rogers' study area and feeds bears in his backyard for enjoyment and as part of Rogers' research. "We've never had a problem,'' Anderson said. "We've learned a lot. We believe in what Lynn is doing.''

Rogers has long said that nuisance bear problems, including their unwanted presence at campgrounds or dumps, and break-ins of cabins, can often be reduced by feeding the animals at prescribed locations, particularly when natural food is scarce.

Some wildlife managers disagree. "Habituated bears can cause problems,'' said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager in Rogers' study area.

In 2005, Rusch told Rogers he wanted bear feeding ended, and in 2007, a township meeting was held to hear residents' bear complaints. Inflaming the gathering was a 2006 DNR hunter harassment charge against Rogers, later dropped, which stemmed from an argument with a hunter who killed a bear near Rogers' research center.

Anderson subsequently was among township residents named to a "bear committee'' that he says resolved most homeowners' bear complaints, while improving relations between them and Rogers. Still, in 2008, the DNR said Rogers was "creating potential for public safety problems as well as jeopardizing the safety of the bears themselves if their close interactions with humans are misinterpreted or unwelcome.''

Rogers worried the DNR would revoke his research permit, effectively shutting him down. Or that the agency might outlaw feeding, which is a necessary part of his habituation of bears as cubs.

Neither occurred. Yet tension between him and the agency remains. After a hunter killed the bear named Sarah, Rogers asked DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten to protect bears from hunters between Ely and Tower wearing research collars with bright ribbons. Holsten declined.

"There are misconceptions about the type of studies I do with bears, and if more people understood it, I think they would understand that protection of these animals is warranted,'' Rogers said, adding, "I've published more scientific, peer-reviewed black bear papers than anyone in the world. This work is important.''

Meanwhile, Ed Boggess, deputy director of the DNR Fish and Wildlife Division, said if Rogers seeks to put collars on more bears and pushes to protect them from hunters, "we will be looking at his permit to see if there is a need for additional restrictions, to limit the potential impact on hunters and the local community.''

Back in the swamp near Ely, Rogers measured Braveheart's heart rate at 44 beats per minute -- a figure he would post that night to tens of thousands of Internet followers.

"That's a low heart rate,'' Rogers said. "She'll be denning soon.''

Then, noting that the bag of hazelnuts he carried was empty, he said, "That's all,'' and walked from the swamp -- he one way, the bear another.

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