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DNR pulls Lynn Rogers’ bear permits

Bear researcher Lynn Rogers of Ely looks up at a red pine tree for signs of recent bear use while looking for Hope the bear cub made famous on Facebook. Clint Austin| Forum News Service

By John Myers

Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Friday revoked permits for famed Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers, ordering him to stop placing radio transmitter collars on bears and stop putting cameras in bear dens.

After years of back-and-forth arguments between Rogers and the agency over Rogers’ motives and methods, top DNR officials say they moved now because the number of complaints about bear behavior near Rogers’ research bears "has grown intolerable."

"It’s a public safety issue," said Chris Niskanen, DNR communications director.

Rogers said the DNR’s allegations are "unfounded" and the DNR’s listed reasons for ending the permits are "disingenuous."

"This is the end of my 46-year career in bear research," Rogers said.

In the letter from DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr dated Friday, Rogers and his associate, Sue Mansfield, were informed their annual permit, which expires Sunday, will be renewed only through July, at which point all collars and den cameras must be removed.

The letter also said Rogers and Mansfield must cease and desist from "disturbing, handling or videotaping wild bears in their dens."

The DNR contends that Rogers’ research bears are habituated to people and human sources of food and have become a nuisance and danger to local residents and seasonal visitors. Agency officials also say his work is not helping add to the body of science about Minnesota black bears.

The letter also alleges "incidents that have been documented in various social media of extremely unprofessional behavior with research bears." DNR officials said that included Rogers slapping a bear.

It’s estimated that there now are about 50 bears in the area that have been collared or otherwise involved in Roger’s efforts.

"There was no final incident. But it came down to the fact that the threat to public safety far outweighs any benefit to bear research, especially since we never see the results of that research," said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s wildlife research manager. "There are now 50 bears up there seeking people to find food. … The situation up there has grown intolerable. … It might be educational and interesting to people on social media, but what’s going on up there really doesn’t rise to the level of what we issue research permits for."

Rogers: No ‘real issues’

Rogers, 74, said he has prepared a 32-page response to the DNR’s allegations. He fired back Friday that the DNR has it out for him because he has gained fame from his bear research as his efforts have helped educate millions of people about bears.

Rogers claims the DNR has been harassing his efforts for a decade or more, spurred more by opposition to his unconventional methods and his fame than by any real safety or scientific issue. He accused local DNR officials of falsifying bear complaints to make the situation seem worse than it is.

"They have been, by their own words, building a case against me for years. They don’t have any real issues or problems, they just don’t want me doing my work," Rogers said. "The commissioner has had this unfounded anger against me since he took the job."

Rogers has had a DNR permit for his work since 1999. He most recently was allowed to collar up to 12 bears.

A permit allowing Rogers to keep tame bars at the North American Bear center in Ely will be renewed.

Rogers has become famous in recent years for his work with black bears, mostly in the Eagles Nest Township area southwest of Ely. He uses food and instincts from years of working with bears to befriend and habituate many of the animals to his presence. He can then place radio collars on some bears and later use telemetry to find them in the woods and study them or, as he has done in recent years, guide small groups of tourists and bear enthusiasts to his collared bears. He has done nearly all his recent research without tranquilizing bears.

The radio collars transmit the bear’s locations so Rogers can find them in the woods for his research efforts.

Rogers has been criticized for feeding bears to keep them in his research area and unnaturally bolstering the local population for his own gain. No people have been hurt, but several of those bears have had run-ins with cabin and home owners. Some of Rogers’ habituated bears have been shot by hunters, raising tensions between hunters and anti-hunters. Others have been shot by conservation officers who said the bears were dangerous. One bear was even relocated to a Michigan game farm.

Rogers countered that there have been Eagles Nest Township residents feeding bears since at least 1961, well before his effort began, with no serious incidents.

Den cam sensation

Rogers became an overnight sensation on Facebook and other media when he placed live-action "den cams" in various bear dens to record the semi-sleeping female bears at the time they give birth to cubs, and then follow the exploits of the bear family. Millions of people watched on their computers around the world as the tiny cubs and sows interacted in the den.

The Facebook page for Lily, one of the more famous bears, has 148,000 "likes." Dozens of those people posted comments Friday, frustrated that the DNR would end Rogers’ work that has reached more than 500 school classrooms and countless wildlife lovers worldwide.

"I just sent a letter to the commissioner of the DNR," Judy Bair Reagan of Hannibal, Mo., posted on the Lily Facebook site. "They’re jealous about all the press Dr. Rogers and (the North American Bear Center) get. It is obviously a vendetta against the NABC and it is ridiculous. I asked them to provide proof that any collared bear had attacked, harmed, or killed anyone!!! Ridiculous!!!"

Dubbed by some as "the Bear Walker of the Northwoods," and the subject of multiple BBC documentaries, Rogers’ transition over the past 25 years from conventional research to studying bears by befriending them has morphed into TV documentaries, creation of the North American Bear Center in Ely, which he was instrumental in founding, and elevation of Rogers to near-mythical status among thousands of animal lovers.

Rogers also heads the Wildlife Research Group, which conducts the on-the-ground bear work and offers tours costing some $2,500 for a three-day vacation field-trip package and the chance to meet some of Rogers’ collared bears in person. This year’s tours, in groups of eight, are booked through the summer and into 2014.

Rogers said Friday he will try to continue offering the field-trips and hands-on bear research for his customers "but I don’t know what we can do without the collars."

As recently as 2008, when the DNR asked impartial bear researchers to review Roger’s methods and data, several of them questioned the scientific value of Roger’s work.

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