Longtime bear researcher Lynn Rogers can resume his Internet video den cameras, but he cannot use radio collars to track the wild animals, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled Monday.
“I’m thrilled that the court recognized the value of my research and ruled I can place the den cameras for science research,” Rogers said. “But we could do a much better job with radio collars to find particular bears. We will do the best that we can.”
Last year, the Department of Natural Resources affirmed its earlier decision to deny a permit to Rogers, who gained fame by putting radio collars on North American black bears in northern Minnesota. The DNR decision came after an administrative law judge said the DNR had the authority to refuse to renew Rogers’ permit.
For 14 years, Rogers had hand-fed wild black bears in order to collar them with satellite tracking devices.
He would post live Internet video feeds from their dens. He drew a global audience and more than 140,000 Facebook followers, who got to know bears such as Lily and Hope through Rogers’ live feeds. The cameras have been highly praised by scientists and teachers.
But on Monday, the Court of Appeals ruled that radio collaring of bears meets the statutory definition of “constructive possession,” which requires a permit. Rogers’ lawyer David Marshall said he is considering whether to reapply for a permit or appeal to the Supreme Court.
DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen said it’s very unlikely the agency would issue a permit to Rogers because of continuing public safety concerns. “We are very satisfied with the court’s decision,” Niskanen said. “The decision was really about whether a permit is required to collar a bear. We believe we are the agency that’s responsible for permitting wildlife research. Anyone interested in it needs to come to us.”
The Court of Appeals ruled that Rogers needs no permit to use den cameras. Rogers plans to resume the broadcasts this winter. He has research information, including GPS coordinates, regarding the location of bear dens, which he will use for camera placement. State law does not allow a person to disturb the burrow or den of a wild animal between November 1 and April 1. If Rogers needed to adjust a den camera during that time, he would need a DNR permit. The agency would have to see his proposal before it would consider it, but Niskanen again said it is doubtful they would issue such a permit.
A wildlife biologist, Rogers, 76, operates the Wildlife Research Institute in Eagles Nest Township near Ely, Minn., within the Superior National Forest. He bought land in the township to study bears after hearing that local residents had been feeding bears for years with very few “nuisance problems.” Rogers not only feeds the bears, but pets, pats and strokes them. For $2,500, people can participate in a four-day bear education program at the Institute.
He first started placing radio collars on bears in the late 1990s and regularly got permits from the DNR until 2013. That’s when the agency began getting reports from homeowners that local bears were coming up to their residences and refusing to leave. There also were reports of dogs being injured by bears and a videotape of Rogers punching a bear in the face.
When the DNR refused Rogers’ permit last year, it cited public safety issues, conduct that it considered unprofessional and questions about the validity of Rogers’ research, including his failure to publish sufficient peer-reviewed research. The DNR has received 69 complaints from area residents about Rogers’ bears since 2009, court documents said. The DNR’s order did allow Rogers to continue feeding and interacting with bears and conduct education.
“We believe hand feeding of bears and taming these wild animals pose a public safety issue,” Niskanen said. “Many bears in Eagles Nest Township view humans as a source of food.”
Rogers enjoys wide support of residents, his attorney said. In 2011 and 2013, the Ely City Council issued resolutions supporting Rogers and his research. Rogers believes complaints against him to the DNR started when he challenged the agency and its effort to revoke his permits. He said the DNR had a campaign to discredit him through false claims, such as the public safety issue. In one year, he went from no complaints to 17.
For his work, Rogers asked three researchers to review his study protocols, and they found no safety issues. He interviewed hikers and runners in the area, and almost no one said they had safety concerns regarding his bears.
On Monday, the Court of Appeals ruled the DNR made a reasonable interpretation of state law that putting a radio collar on a bear means that person possesses the bear, which requires a permit.