Bear Center faces challenges

DNR-Rogers rift affects visitor numbers; cub acquisition blocked by DNR

file photo
Visitors to the North American Bear Center outside of Ely inspect skulls and bone fragments.
Marshall Helmberger

ELY— Officials with the North American Bear Center say negative publicity surrounding the ongoing dispute between black bear researcher Lynn Rogers and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, has hurt attendance at the center, located in Ely.

While director Judy Thon said the center isn’t at risk of closing, the decline in attendance is a concern. Last year, the center saw attendance dip 19 percent, and it has declined eight percent so far in 2014, even compared to last year’s depressed numbers.

That’s despite the fact that the center added a new yearling bear to its exhibit in December, which normally improves attendance, said Thon. “It’s just like when the wolf center got its pups,” she said.

While Rogers helped found the NABC, as an educational outlet, Thon is quick to point out that the center is a separate organization from Rogers’ Wildlife Research Institute, which oversees the Ely biologist’s scientific work. Thon acknowledges that Rogers’ research is important to the work of the center. “We are their educational and outreach arm,” said Thon. The center does present Rogers’ findings in various exhibits and regularly airs video filmed by Rogers and others associated with his research.

Still, it is Rogers’ work and methods at the WRI, and in particular his attempts to win support for legal protection for radio-collared bears, that have left him at odds with the DNR.

But Thon said the public often misunderstands the distinction, and she said DNR officials have, on occasion, lumped the two organizations together, which has only exacerbated the center’s publicity problem.

“We’ve had many people come in and say they heard we were going to close because of the DNR,” said Thon. “And people say they’ve heard all these negative things, and they ask about Lynn’s connection with the center.”

Thon said sometimes the visitors buy a ticket after getting answers to their questions, and other times they’ve turned around and said they might come back later. “Of course, we don’t know if they do,” said Thon.

Thon, who attended all eight days of evidentiary testimony in Rogers’ appeal of the DNR’s decision to deny him a research permit, said DNR officials frequently mentioned the NABC in their testimony as if it were synonymous with the WRI. “They are trying to make a connection there, but to drag us into it is inappropriate,” she said. Thon said the DNR has a tremendous media reach and their efforts to portray Rogers as a kind of pseudo-scientist, or even a huckster, have gotten widespread coverage. “I think it does have an effect,” said Thon.

While the drop in visitation at the NABC could be attributable to the DNR’s campaign to discredit Rogers, other factors may also be at play. “The last three to four years, I think, have been very tough for any tourism destination,” said Tom Myrick, communications director at the International Wolf Center. “Between the economy, government shutdown, and high gas prices, it’s been far from ideal.”

The wolf center did see a dip in its own visitation last year, but Myrick said that was expected after the sizable jump the year before when the center acquired its new pups. “There’s always a spike when we have pups, or something novel,” said Myrick. “The challenge is always to bring something new to the table. When you can, you’ll see an effect.”

This year, the wolf center added its new photo exhibition on the aurora borealis, an exhibit that has proven popular, and has helped the center draw in more visitors this June, than last.

DNR blocks NABC bear transfer

Thon is well aware of the need for continual updating and change, and that’s why she’s particularly concerned about the DNR’s latest steps to block the NABC’s efforts to do just that. By putting an end to Rogers’ research, Thon said the NABC will no longer be able to add fresh bear behavior video for display at the center.

But what’s worse, she said, in the wake of the testimony during Rogers’ appeal, some DNR officials moved to block an attempt by the NABC to acquire another young bear for its exhibit.

In May, the center learned that a Wisconsin wildlife rehabilitation center, known as Wild Instincts, was housing a yearling bear for the Wisconsin DNR. The young bear had apparently been separated from its mother at an early age and was raised by people, leaving it unable to live in the wild.

The NABC has obtained most of its captive bears in similar circumstances. Indeed, the center obtained one of the bears, named Lucky, currently housed at the center, from Wild Instincts several years earlier. As recently as last December, the center had obtained another yearling bear that was being housed by a wildlife rehabilitator in Arkansas for that state’s Game and Fish Department. In each case, the DNR had presented no objections to the acquisitions.

But this time, Thon said, DNR officials blocked the NABC’s efforts to obtain the young bear by initially denying the transfer and telling Wisconsin DNR officials that they opposed the acquisition.

Lou Cornicelli, Wildlife Research Manager for the Minnesota DNR, denies that the DNR ever tried to block the transfer of the bear, saying that the decision to deny transfer of the bear was made solely by the Wisconsin DNR, without any influence from Minnesota officials. Cornicelli says that the Minnesota DNR did discuss the bear in conversations with their Wisconsin colleagues, but that those discussions were only to determine the legal status of the bear, for example, whether it was designated as wild, or rehabilitated. “I was initially under the impression that the bear at issue was a rehabbed bear and thus fell under the rehabbing rules, which I do not administer. Once it was determined that the bear was wild, the NABC, which is a licensed game farm, was apprised through Dr. Rogers’ Attorney what it could do to acquire the bear.”

But Cornicelli’s version, provided in answer to questions this week from the Timberjay, is inconsistent with statements he and others in the DNR made in a series of email exchanges on the matter back in May.

“Our collective decision is to not permit the transfer of this wild animal into your facility,” wrote Cornicelli in a May 7 email to Thon at the NABC. While Cornicelli said he initially believed that the bear was classified as “rehabilitated,” the DNR’s position did not change following an email to Cornicelli from Mark Naniot, Director of Wildlife Rehabilitation at Wild Instincts, in Rhinelander, that made it clear to all involved that the bear had not been rehabilitated, but was simply being housed by Wisconsin authorities until it could be transferred to a permanent placement. “No rehabilitation was attempted nor considered,” Naniot wrote in the email, which was copied to Lori Naumann, also with the Minnesota DNR.

Naumann’s response to Naniot was unequivocal. “Minnesota is still not open to taking this bear,” responded Naumann, in an email sent the following morning, May 8. That email was sent to Naniot, as well as Thon, Cornicelli and Amanda Kamps, a Wisconsin DNR biologist caught up in the middle of the dispute.

Cornicelli’s statement that the Minnesota DNR never attempted to influence Wisconsin officials is directly contradicted by Naumann’s email, which clearly stated Minnesota’s opposition to the transfer, to the Wisconsin official overseeing that state’s decision-making on the matter.

The Timberjay attempted to contact Kamps, but she did not respond.

Both Thon and Naniot, however, confirm that they had conversations with Kamps, and that she indicated Minnesota’s opposition to the transfer as a primary reason behind Wisconsin’s decision to deny the bear to the NABC. According to Thon, Kamps said, “The WDNR must respect the import requirements, and regulations of the state that the bear will be going to, in this case Minnesota.”

Yet, as it turns out, Minnesota’s DNR had no authority to deny the transfer after all. Frustrated by the incident, Lynn Rogers tapped his attorney, David Marshall, to contact the Minnesota Attorney General. On May 12, NABC officials received a letter from DNR General Counsel Sherry Enzler informing them that no DNR permit was even required for the NABC to obtain the bear from Wisconsin. “Minnesota has no legal authority to issue permits for wild animals owned either by a private individual or by another state,” wrote Enzler.

NABC officials assumed the response would clear the way to acquire the bear, after all, but by that time, Wisconsin DNR officials had apparently decided not to wade into the political fracas between the Minnesota DNR, Rogers, and the NABC.

The bear has since been transferred to a different facility, located in Wausau, Wis.