DNR pulls Rogers’ permit for bear research

Ely, Minn. — Lynn Rogers has about a month to remove the collars from the bears he observes in the Ely area. That’s the word from the Minnesota DNR, which last week announced it was pulling the plug on a research permit issued to the well-known and sometimes controversial bear researcher at the Wildlife Research Institute, who brought the public bear-den cams that made national celebrities of bears named Lily and Hope, and others.

It’s the latest chapter in a long-running dispute between Rogers and the DNR, which cited a lack of research results, a threat to public safety, and “extremely unprofessional behavior” for denying the permit.

Rogers, 74, says the timing couldn’t be worse, that he’s at the pinnacle of the observatory type of research he conducts, which includes walking with bears and other interactions.

“I am doing the top research of my whole 46-year career right now,” Rogers said earlier this week. “No one in the world has ever done anything close to this research.”

He said he now has a sample size of collared research bears large enough to provide good information.

Rogers acknowledged this isn’t the first time he’s butted heads with the agency.

“I’ve long faced animosity from certain (DNR) officials,” he said.

On June 14, the DNR sent a letter to Rogers, listing three particular reasons for denying the research permit. His current permit was extended until July 31, giving Rogers time to remove collars from approximately a dozen bears in the area.

“The reasons for this action have been articulated to you in previous letters,” DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr states in the most current version. Those points:

• “You have no peer-reviewed literature based on the permitted activities, in spite of your insistence for many years that this is a critical element of legitimate research.”
• “Your habituation of bears to humans – including hand feeding and close interactions between bears and people – creates a very real public safety issue. You have stated that there are more than 50 bears in the Ely area that have been subjects of your work; this creates a large and long-term habituation issue.”
• “We are aware of incidents that have been documented in various social media of extremely unprofessional behavior with research bears.”

DNR officials say they’re comfortable with their decision.

“From our perspective, we’ve done our due diligence with issuing or not issuing the permit,” said Lou Cornicelli, the DNR’s wildlife research and policy manager, who elaborated on the points made in the letter.

Cornicelli said other researchers get permits from the department to study various wildlife species in the state, but Rogers’ is the “only one we have running this long with really … no outcome,” he said.

Regarding “habituated” bears, Cornicelli said more people in the area are becoming less tolerant of bears that don’t seem to mind the presence of humans. He said it’s tough to know exactly how many of the bears with which Rogers has had contact are the ones causing problems in the Ely area, as about 50 have been studied, but only 12 to 15 have collars.

“But find a place somewhere else where you can walk up to a bear and slap it on the nose …” he said.

To demonstrate “extremely unprofessional behavior,” Cornicelli points to a video circulated on the web and elsewhere, one that shows Rogers lying next to a research bear that’s eating from a pan. At one point, the bear swats at Rogers, who reacts by slapping at the bear.

That incident “raised a whole bunch of red flags,” Cornicelli said, in that a man who for decades has studied bears close-up, could so badly misjudge a bear’s behavior or anticipate its actions.

(Readers can see the video at www.outdoornews.com/links)

Activities at the Wildlife Research Institute could continue, Cornicelli said, but collars would need to be removed from bears, den cams no longer would be allowed, and a “bear study course” offered by Rogers would need to be discontinued.

In a response on the Wildlife Research Institute website, Rogers calls the allegations “unfounded, and … written to sway the public. These are not the real reasons for (Landwehr’s) ending our research.”

He said earlier this week the DNR is exaggerating, misrepresenting, or is “just wrong” regarding Rogers’ activities.

“All of (what the department alleges) sounds pretty good, but it’s all a big load,” he said.

While the DNR cited several examples of requests for research information over the years, Rogers claims it was other actions that prompted the recent permit denial: “In 2011, the DNR expressed deep anger over the number of letters we asked you (web blog readers) to send in support of protection for radio-collared bears and over comments on Facebook against hunters following the death of Hope. We have been aware for some time now that the DNR has been trying to build a case, any case, to stop our research.”

Rogers adds that the DNR in several ways has prohibited him and fellow researcher Sue Mansfield from publishing for review research data. “It shows the disingenuity of the case they’re making,” he said.

He also says the department has falsified complaints regarding bears in the area, calling reported local run-ins with bears an “extreme exaggeration of things.”

Rogers, who says he supports hunting of bears and has fought in the past against legislative efforts to curtail bear baiting, began his research in earnest in 2000, in a “Jane Goodall kind of way.”

“In 2004 we were able to walk with our first bear,” he said.

In 2007 the WRI center was constructed, and the den cam gained hundreds of thousands of followers, and resulted in a flood of donations to help pay for the facility. WRI is a nonprofit organization supported by course fees, lecture fees, memberships, donors, merchandise sales, and dedicated volunteers, according to its website.

Local officials say the activities of Rogers, including the den cams the WRI, are a boon to the area.

In an email response, Ely Mayor Ross Petersen called the DNR’s action “uncalled for” and said it would negatively affect the city.

“I think that between the additional visitors to Ely, and the publicity Ely received every year from Lynn’s research, the Ely area received well over a million dollars a year in value from Dr. Rogers’ research,” Petersen wrote. “We told the commissioner (Landwehr) and the Fish and Wildlife director (Ed Boggess) that and asked them to let us know, numerous times, what their intention was with Dr. Rogers’ permits, and they were mum on the issue until they did the dirty deed on the Friday before the 4th of July weekend.

“We’ve asked them for some sort of open discussion about this and got nothing,” Petersen wrote. “I think that is a good indicator of whether or not this decision can be defended in the light of day or not.”

Petersen said he’s sent emails to both Landwehr and Boggess “asking them for a written rationale for this decision and don’t expect to get one.”

Regarding Rogers’ research, Petersen wrote: “It was so much better than what the DNR was doing, they decided to end the competition.”

Rogers, meanwhile, said he hasn’t pursued any recourse, but still would like to have a meeting with DNR officials, the governor, legislators, and others, to discuss the matter. It’s something he also said he’d requested in January, when the DNR reduced the number of bears he was allowed to collar for research.

“I just want what I’ve requested over and over with no response. I’m looking for fairness, a chance to tell my story,” Rogers said. “I want to feel good, not intense like I feel right now.”

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