Price tag is growing on DNR's legal conflict with bear researcher

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 9, 2014 - 12:06 AM
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After a long search through a spruce bog, Lynn Rogers, founder and executive director of the North American Bear Center, was able to approach Brave Heart, one of the collared black bears in his study.

Photo: BRIAN PETERSON • Star Tribune file,

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Late Thursday afternoon, when Chief Administrative Judge Tammy Pust concluded a nearly two-week-long hearing in St. Paul by reiterating that her court’s job was to resolve differences between opposing parties, she wasn’t just whistling Dixie. Not about the “opposing parties” part. Especially not in the matter just ending: an expensive slugfest featuring, in one corner, the Department of Natural Resources and all the legal firepower it could muster from the attorney general’s office, while perched in the other corner, with his own battery of solicitors, was Lynn Rogers, bear researcher and, it should be said, longtime thorn in the DNR’s side.

Together, the opposing pugilists have dropped more than $200,000 so far in legal fees — with that much and likely more yet to come.

Predictions how this case will conclude are foolishly made. The DNR and its kingpin, Tom Landwehr, have thrown down the gauntlet in their attempt to make Rogers and his bear research go away. Particularly irksome to Landwehr is that a DNR permit has allowed Rogers to collar bears by food conditioning and habituation at his Wildlife Research Institute near Ely, a practice Landwehr believes threatens public safety and anyway doesn’t contribute much to “science.”

Last year, the DNR yanked Rogers’ permit. Subsequently, Rogers did what few in his position could, or would. He counterpunched, suing the DNR and sending the conflict to Pust’s hearing room.

All of which suggests that Rogers is a fighter in the classic sense, a designation that, while true in some ways — years ago he bested the U.S. Forest Service, his former employer, in an expensive, complicated and drawn-out employment dispute — also characterizes him too simply.

At 75, with a doctorate from the U, Rogers has, throughout much of his career, marched to a drummer whose cadence he alone hears.

Who else among his peers, for example, has “walked” with bears to study them, while cultivating tens of thousands of bear “fans” worldwide and, not incidentally, constructing a $1 million-plus bear center near Ely?

Who among his peers has placed “den cams” in wintering bear dens to broadcast images over the Internet of mother bears giving birth?

And who among wildlife researchers has lengthy waiting lists of people willing in summer to travel to a largely faceless research center where they pay good money to hang out with bears and other bear-loving people?

Few in Rogers’ field of wildlife research have even imagined pursuing such undertakings. Fewer still have accomplished them. Yet while many of Rogers’ supporters suggest he’s uniquely gifted, others consider him more gadfly than genius.

“Stunts” are how Rogers’ food conditioning and habituation of bears have been described by some researchers who dismiss Rogers’ feeding of bears to gain their trust as little more than circus acts.

The heart of the matter, as the DNR sees it, is that Rogers’ feeding of bears in Eagles Nest Township between Ely and Tower, Minn., constitutes a public safety threat, because some bears wearing his research collars are seen as food-seeking pests — or worse, as threats — by some area residents.

Additionally, the DNR says, Rogers — notwithstanding a long list of bear research papers published earlier in his career — isn’t serious about the more recent research because he hasn’t published results in peer-reviewed publications, as expected by Landwehr in a letter he wrote Rogers in 2012.

Rogers’ attorney, David Marshall, doesn’t buy it.

“Not only is there a contrary view [about any threats posed by Rogers’ collared bears], but it’s a view informed by people in that township for 40 years … all testifying that they did not see a public safety issue with bears.”

Moreover, Rogers’ recent research publication efforts should satisfy the DNR, Marshall said. And in any event the DNR permit given Rogers “is for research and education, and it’s undisputed that there’s more education going on up there than anywhere else,” Marshall said, adding that feeding bears is legal, and because Rogers neither possesses nor controls a bear when he places a collar on it, “he doesn’t need a permit.”

Undisputed is that DNR researchers and managers do not see eye to eye with Rogers, in large part because the agency’s researchers pursue science according to broadly recognized methodologies, with results subject to peer review. Rogers, by contrast, is less regimented, and has largely failed to collate and analyze data he and fellow researcher Sue Mansfield have accumulated over many years.

Complicating this disconnect is Rogers’ extreme popularity gained through the bear center, his summer bear study sessions and social media, including his den cam broadcasts.

DNR wildlife researchers, meanwhile — not that they necessarily would have it any other way — often spend entire careers in relative obscurity.

Pust will issue a “findings of fact, conclusions of law and a recommended order” by the end of April. But the final decision in the matter will rest with the DNR, though neither Landwehr nor other agency managers with ties to the case can participate in that outcome.

Should he lose, Rogers can appeal. The DNR can’t.

All of which is complicated. And perhaps unnecessary.

Beyond argument is that Rogers is a bit of a nutty professor. But it’s difficult to believe he would willingly roll the legal dice with the DNR at a likely cost to him and his supporters of perhaps $250,000, if presented with a reasonable alternative at compromise.

Similarly, through January the DNR has run up a $112,000 legal bill in the Rogers case, a sum that is being paid from the Game and Fish Fund, which is supported by hunting, fishing, trapping and related license sales.

Perhaps principles at stake here are that important to the DNR.

But maybe not.

What is true, apparently, is that no one in the DNR has officially visited either the North American Bear Center or the Wildlife Research Institute to see what transpires at those sites, and maybe from those observations, propose a compromise.

Perhaps Rogers would have bit. Perhaps not.

Either way, it’s too late now.

 

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

 

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