Officials within the Department of Natural Resources are given wide-ranging authority over the management of millions of acres of public lands as well as all of the state’s wild fish and game populations. And with that authority comes great responsibility to be fair in the exercise of that inherent power.
And that has been our Number One concern over the troubling relationship between bear biologist Lynn Rogers and the DNR. That longstanding battle took another turn this week with the decision issued by Chief Administrative Law Judge Tammy Pust that upheld the DNR’s suspension of Rogers research permit.
Pust’s 69-page decision reflects the often-stark differences of opinion regarding the value and nature of Roger’s research, and her findings of fact offered new details about the longstanding internal debates within the DNR about how to deal with the Ely bear researcher. While the judge’s final conclusion, that the DNR has the authority and adequate cause to deny a permit to Rogers, was a victory for the agency, it’s clear the judge was not impressed by the DNR’s actions in many cases. At one point, in late April, the judge even sanctioned the agency for failing to respond properly to a request by Rogers’ legal team for certain agency documents.
It’s no surprise that Rogers is a frustration to the DNR. He is opinionated, seeks publicity, and has challenged scientific orthodoxy, and DNR policy on occasion. He has also, unfortunately, at times seemed to lose his scientific objectivity and counseled actions, such as hand-feeding of bears, that most reasonable people would see as dangerous, to both humans and bears. His actions have not only made him a target of criticism, they have made his study bears the target of a small number of disgruntled hunters. Sometimes, he can be his own worst enemy.
But everyone, even the occasionally difficult, must be treated fairly by the state, be it the DNR or any other agency. When a government official makes decisions regarding anyone that are based on personal dislike, professional rivalry, retaliation, disagreement, or any other factor other than the public interest, that official abuses his or her authority. Which is why we have been critical of the agency when evidence of bias towards Rogers has surfaced, as it has on more than one occasion.
We’ve seen even more troubling evidence of DNR bias towards Rogers on another issue, this time affecting the North American Bear Center. We hope to be able to report more on that soon.
In the meantime, it remains entirely unclear whether Judge Pust’s ruling will have much practical effect on the bear situation in Eagles Nest Township. It’s ironic that the actions effectively prohibited by the judge—affixing radio collars and the use of den cams— have little connection to the public safety concerns cited by the DNR. According to the DNR, it’s the frequent hand-feeding and other close interactions between Rogers and others, and his study bears, that are creating the public safety threat. Yet Rogers can continue those activities to his heart’s content, according to the judge, who notes that bear feeding does not require a DNR permit. He can continue to offer study courses and, because he no longer has DNR permit restrictions to worry about, he can once again offer participants of those sessions up close and personal interactions with bears.
Without radio collars, it’s likely that it will be tougher, at times, for Rogers to locate his study animals. But most of them are regular visitors to Rogers’ feeding stations, so he may be able to continue his monitoring of the bears by other means. Rogers has proven himself to be both creative and stubborn over the years, so don’t be surprised to see him resort to other inventive means to continue his work.
If so, the DNR will have a continuing obligation to treat him with the fairness and impartiality that should, by right, be accorded every citizen of Minnesota. With authority comes that most basic responsibility.