It’s possible that the Department of Natural Resources’ proposed ban on bear feeding in Minnesota is being introduced solely out of concern for public safety. But its timing and the almost complete lack of any evidence of risk to the public strongly suggests otherwise.
The agency is in the midst of an expensive and ongoing legal battle with Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers, and it just so happens that Rogers is funding his Wildlife Research Institute and his legal fight primarily through bear study courses. Rogers can just about guarantee close-up bear experiences to course participants because he feeds bears on the institute’s grounds. A ban on bear feeding would pretty much shut down Rogers’ operations, something the DNR has sought for years.
There’s no question that there’s bad blood between top agency officials and Rogers. The agency has worked overtime to damage Rogers’ reputation, and it’s even stood in the way of the North American Bear Center, whose board Rogers chairs, as it has attempted to obtain new bears for its exhibit.
That’s troubling in itself. But proposing legislation to specifically shut down Rogers’ institute is beyond troubling— it’s an abuse of power that the Legislature should have nothing to do with. There’s no doubt that Rogers is a controversial figure, with supporters and detractors alike. But the Legislature isn’t supposed to pass laws to target individuals, even controversial ones. We’re supposed to have basic rights in America, after all, including the right to be unorthodox. The government shouldn’t be permitted to shut down what is, in effect, a small business simply because they don’t like the guy who runs it, or disagree with his message.
As a local business, Rogers’ Wildlife Research Institute has used the growing public interest in ecotourism to attract hundreds of visitors to the area each year, most for stays of several days.
It’s the same interest that draws thousands of visitors each year to the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary, another facility in our region that feeds bears, much to the delight of the public. While the law proposed by the DNR is almost certainly targeted at Rogers, its current language would likely shut down the sanctuary’s feeding operation as well. While the DNR Commissioner could presumably issue a permit to the facility, doing so would further expose the DNR’s bill for what it is, the abuse of legislative power to target a single individual.
The DNR has made no credible case that bear feeding is an unreasonable danger to the public. For one thing, very few people actually feed bears. And those who have fed bears for years provide some of the best evidence that doing so isn’t particularly risky. Rogers and his fellow researcher Sue Mansfield, along with many others who have accompanied them in their work in the field, still have all their limbs, including all ten fingers.
Before the government can further restrict our freedoms, it should have to make a showing that a particular action poses a legitimate risk. And despite a concerted effort by the agency to showcase Rogers’ bears as problem animals, the DNR has little to show for it.
If the DNR is concerned about public safety, it would prohibit deer feeding long before imposing a ban on the feeding of bears. The nuisances created by deer are far greater, as is the public safety concern from deer darting back and forth across highways near feeding areas. Deer feeding results in documentable public risk and financial loss, but the agency isn’t suggesting a ban, nor should it.
As Americans, we have a constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, and for many of us that includes feeding and observing wildlife close at hand. While government has the ability to restrict our various pursuits, it’s well established that such restrictions must be based on sound evidence of harm, and that those risks must significantly outweigh our rights to be left alone. On that score, the weight of evidence isn’t in the DNR’s favor. As such, the Legislature should reject the agency’s proposed legislation. Let Minnesotans decide for themselves if it makes sense to feed bears.