DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr says he won't protect radio-collared bears from hunters, an action that is sure to stir a lot of dissent both in Minnesota and across the nation. A legislative response is also possible.

The issue, primarily, involves bears studied by researcher Lynn Rogers between Ely and Tower, Minn., in the northeast part of the state. Rogers is founder of the North American Bear Center near Ely, and a former U.S. Forest Service researcher.

"I'm very disappointed,'' Rogers said Monday afternoon. "I was really counting on the commissioner to come through on this.''

Rogers said Landwehr told him  his decision by email Monday morning, and followed with a phone call.

Landwehr said in a commentary mailed to newspaper editors Monday the  DNR will continue to ask hunters voluntarily not to shoot collared bears.

Bears Rogers studies wear collars that transmit their position to researchers. The collars are adorned with brightly colored ribbons. The DNR also fits some study bears with collars.

In recent years, Rogers has become a sort of rock star among many followers of his bears, in part because his  "den cam'' this winter and last winter captured the live births of bear cubs to a mother bear Rogers calls Lily. Tens of thousands of people watched over the Internet, and more follow Rogers' bears on Facebook and elsewhere online. (The den camera can be viewed at www.bear.org.)

"Ely has benefited a lot by these bears,'' Rogers said, noting that online bear followers helped secure $100,000 for nearby Bearhead Lake State Park, and $20,000 for Ely schools to upgrade their computers.

The Ely City Council in December voted unanimously to support protection of the bears.

In what many of Rogers' followers likely will take as an insult, Landwehr called research done by Rogers to be "popular and interesting,'' but "not essential to managing bear populations in Minnesota. As a matter of policy, our job at the DNR is to manage entire populations of wild animals, and singling out individual bears for protection is not a policy I support.''

Rogers argues  his research, which in part centers on helping people to more broadly understand black bear behavior, is critical to an American society that is increasingly encroaching on the nation's wild lands. DNR research, he has said, more fundamentally deals with population size and the number of animals that can be taken by hunters.

But Landwehr said making it illegal to harvest radio-collared bears would be largely unenforceable. Most bears are taken in low light at dawn and dusk, he said, and it is very likely a hunter could fail to distinguish a marked bear. "We don’t want to prosecute people for honest mistakes,'' he said.

       Countered Rogers Monday afternoon: "Asking hunters to look for a gaudy ribbon on a bear is much less of a burden than asking them to look for a 3-inch antler on a deer.''
 
·       Landwehr also said it would be nearly impossible to prove a crime. "Even if markings are visible, it would be difficult for a conservation officer to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a hunter could see the collars.   Also, a truly guilty party could remove collar flagging surreptitiously and further argue they were not visible,'' he said.
 
·        "Wildlife belongs to all Minnesotans,'' Landwehr continued. "It is a public resource, and wild game animals are lawful to harvest under state law. Placing a collar and flagging on a game animal shouldn’t 'reserve' it for one individual or group. Even in the name of research, individuals or groups shouldn’t be allowed to preempt legal harvest. It sets a terrible precedent for usurpation of public resources.''
 
·        Finally, Landwehr said the issue should be resolved in the Legislature, adding that the DNR also loses collared bears to hunters each fall.  "But in a wild population of wild animals, hunting is a function of their life cycle in a human-dominate landscape,'' he said.