Rogers’ bears to keep their collars, for now

St. Paul — Research collars employed by Ely bear researcher Dr. Lynn Rogers will remain on 10 animals he’s studying, to the chagrin of state DNR officials. However, the court ruling on Monday also outlined conditions to be met by both parties, and in a few months an administrative law judge is expected to make a final recommendation regarding the ongoing battle.

“A victory and a great day,” the website for the Wildlife Research Institute – Rogers’ base – proclaimed Tuesday.

Monday’s court ruling came from a Ramsey County District Court judge just two days before Rogers was to have removed the collars from bears he tracks, hand-feeds, and occasionally has featured on web cams.

It was the latest in a whirlwind of events centered around the controversial 74-year-old researcher. In June, the DNR refused to re-issue a research permit to Rogers, citing public safety concerns, a lack of published and peer-reviewed research, and “extremely unprofessional behavior” as primary reasons for denial. All radio collars were to be removed by the end of July.

But last week, Rogers was granted a meeting with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who subsequently failed to redirect the DNR regarding the research permit. The next day, Rogers sued the department, and the hearing took place July 29.

Although characterized by some as a “compromise,” Chris Niskanen, DNR communications director, said Tuesday that wasn’t the case.

“Our desire all along was to have (Rogers) stop this activity,” Niskanen said. “We continue to be concerned about the public safety issues.”

He pointed out complaints from citizens, including an area grandmother afraid to let her granddaughter out of the house with an ice-cream cone in hand.

Rogers, who’s researched  bears for going on five decades, has maintained during the permitting process that he’s now reaching a crucial point in his studies. He’s received DNR research permits for nearly 15 years.
For now, Rogers will leave collars on 10 bears, but there are a number of conditions laid out by the judge following discussions between DNR officials and Rogers’ attorney.

Judge John H. Guthmann “strongly encouraged the two sides to come up with a compromise,” Niskanen said. “He made it clear there would be a winner and a loser if there wasn’t a compromise.”

He also made it clear, Niskanen said, that he wanted to maintain status quo regarding Rogers’ research.

“But we wanted boundaries on it,” Niskanen said, adding that local citizens were “coming out of the woodwork” with concerns.

Among the conditions agreed upon:

• Two den cameras will be allowed in two bear dens, but the broadcast on the Internet won’t be allowed, according to Niskanen. The focus of Rogers’ work – and why permits are issued – should be research outcomes. The DNR’s concern is public safety, he added.

“Broadcasting to us serves no research value,” Niskanen said. “They (Rogers and his associates and attorney) didn’t like that part and asked if we’d budge.”

DVDs for schools are OK, Niskanen said, and the WRI may show archived video via the Internet, if it chooses.

• Hand-feeding of bears won’t be allowed, with a couple exceptions, according to Niskanen. Rogers, fellow researcher Sue Mansfield, and four associates may hand-feed the collared bears in order to change batteries in their collars, in order that the bears need not be tranquilized. The batteries must be changed approximately every 10 days.

The second exception pertains to classes offered by Rogers and the WRI. Niskanen said he has four classes left this season. Rogers will be allowed to hand-feed research bears once during each class. However, “students” must remain 150 feet behind Rogers, and are not allowed to participate in the hand-feeding.

• Niskanen said if one of the 10 collared bears dies, the collar may not be transferred to another bear. Rogers must submit the names of each collared bear, along with individual radio frequencies.

• The DNR will issue a press release and send letters to area hunters telling them not to shoot collared bears in the area.

• When changing batteries, Rogers and his crew may collect some biological data.

Importantly, Niskanen said, the Ramsey County judge agreed to move the matter along the contested hearing path – something the DNR offered Rogers prior to the meeting with Gov. Dayton.

During the process, which Niskanen said could occur in the next six to nine months, an administrative law judge will review each sides’ arguments before rendering an opinion. It’s then up to the DNR commissioner (Tom Landwehr) to make a decision on the matter.

(Of note, according to Niskanen, an “impartial observer” from the DNR will review the case following the recommendation of the administrative law judge. It’s possible that person could reject a judge’s recommendation favorable to the DNR, but not likely, he said.)

“There’s no guarantee of the outcome (of that process),” Niskanen said.

So, how will Rogers’ activities be monitored in the meantime? Niskanen said the Rogers must send the department a monthly report on his findings, but for the most part, “it’s a trust issue,” Niskanen said. “He knows and we know this is enforceable by court order. If he violates the conditions, we can revoke (the permit) immediately.” (In which case, Niskanen said, Rogers could plead his case before the judge.)

Rogers was in the field conducting a “black bear field course” on Monday while “Sue and the legal team were working to ensure the research continues,” according to the WRI website.

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