Anderson: Hunter gives take on death of famed bear

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2011 - 1:44 AM

It wasn't obvious that Hope was a yearling because animals in that area get supplemental food and grow quickly, he explains.

The hunter who believes he shot Hope, the yearling female bear whose birth was broadcast worldwide on the Internet in January 2010, says black bears are abundant in the area being studied by researcher Lynn Rogers and indicates he'll hunt the area again.

"It is essential that hunting continues in the area to keep populations at an acceptable level,'' the hunter said, "and to ensure bears respect certain boundaries with the human population of the area.''

I talked to the hunter this week, and he agreed to answer written questions of mine for publication, provided I didn't name him.

Hope wasn't wearing a radio collar when she was shot, so the hunter had no way to identify her. Such collars broadcast an animal's position via GPS.

Rogers made dozens of attempts to outfit the animal with a collar, succeeding four times. "But each time she took it off,'' he said.

A onetime U.S. Forest Service researcher, Rogers is director of the North American Bear Center outside Ely and head of the Wildlife Research Institute near that town.

Unlike other bear researchers, Rogers doesn't tranquilize animals to fit them with radio collars. Instead he habituates the ones he can, training them to trust him as he approaches the animals in the wild.

Rogers' supporters travel from throughout the nation and world to "walk with'' him and his study bears.

For its part, the Department of Natural Resources says it doesn't know who shot Hope, if in fact she was shot. It's possible, the agency said, the animal simply dispersed from its mother -- a study bear of Rogers' named Lily -- and a cub-of-the-year of Lily's named Faith.

Rogers and his study bears have a worldwide following. Lily's Facebook page, for example, has 132,000 friends. Faith's birth also was broadcast on the Internet.

The hunter who believes he shot Hope said because bears are routinely fed in Rogers' study area, the animals there are larger than in other parts of the state. So he had no way to judge whether the bear he shot was a yearling when it came to his bait.

Yearling Minnesota black bears typically weigh only 90-100 pounds, the DNR says.

"[But] it is difficult to judge a bear's age by size alone,'' the hunter said. "This is especially true in the areas where bears have supplemental food available to them. Yearlings in the area around Tower, for instance, due to the dozen or so homes actively feeding them, along with WRI [Rogers' research organization], are typically 150-200 pounds. This is the average weight for an adult sow, or perhaps a 2-3-year-old boar elsewhere in the state.'' 

Rogers said last week he has spoken to the hunter I spoke with. But perhaps fearing reprisals from some of his study bears' supporters, he wouldn't name him. (He also declined to give the hunter's name to me.)

Before bear season opened Sept. 1, the DNR asked hunters not to shoot study bears wearing radio collars. About 30 collared animals are being followed by the DNR in the northwest part of the state, and about a dozen bears are wearing Rogers' collars in the Ely and Tower area of northeast Minnesota.

No collared bears being studied by Rogers have been shot, and just one, an adult male, of the DNR's. The hunter who killed the DNR study bear told the agency he didn't see the collar before shooting.

Fallout from the death of the DNR bear has been minimal to nonexistent. But last week when news spread of Hope's demise, the DNR heard from people worldwide, some of whom argued that bear hunting is cruel. Others said it shouldn't be allowed where Rogers -- who says he supports bear hunting -- is studying bears.

One supporter of Rogers wrote on a Facebook page following Hope's disappearance, "I honestly believe she was targeted. Hunters (the unethical ones) knew she wasn't collared = fair game. I don't believe for one minute it was a 'mistake' or he/they didn't know who she was.''

But the hunter told me he had earlier agreed not to shoot collared study bears. And he had passed on a collared bear that had come to his bait earlier this fall.

"We first met Lynn and learned of his research in 2002, when he approached us at one of our bait sites to inspect a bear we had harvested,'' the hunter said. "He introduced himself, explained about the bears he was studying, and asked us to avoid shooting the collared research bears in the area. After discussing his research, and realizing the benefits of leaving the collared female bears to sustain a consistent number of huntable offspring in the area, we agreed to cooperate with him.''

The hunter said he and others in his group have hunted the area for 15 years, "long before the widely publicized documentaries, social network pages, or flamboyantly colored collars became popular.''

Rogers said he last saw Hope on Sept. 14. On Sept. 15, 16 and 17, Rogers said, Lily -- Hope's mother --visited a hunter's bait site, according to signals sent from her collar.

But the hunter told me Rogers' research bears seldom visit hunter's bait sites "due to the enormity of food supplied to them during hunting season at the feeding stations set up at the WRI center and the homes that cooperate with them in the vicinity.''

"Over half of the dozen or so bears our party has harvested in the area over the years have been unknown to the researchers,'' he said. "The remainder have been bears that are not part of the active study, such as yearling male offspring that will eventually disperse from the study area, or breeding-age males that frequent the area for mating purposes.

"The area has consistently sustained annual harvest numbers above the remainder of the state, and despite these significant inroads on their numbers, bear concentrations in the area have continued to climb.''

He added: "Due to the excellent nutrition, bears in these areas tend to grow into their winter coat much sooner than in other areas, and will typically have a full heavy winter hide by the time hunting season comes around. ... When a bear approaches a bait site alone, as they typically do, it is even more difficult to determine size accurately in the few seconds you have to determine whether you wish to take the animal.''

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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