REGIONAL - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will not be renewing the research permit for renowned bear biologist Lynn Rogers, a decision that effectively ends 46 years of scientific …
REGIONAL - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will not be renewing the research permit for renowned bear biologist Lynn Rogers, a decision that effectively ends 46 years of scientific study by the Ely-based scientist.
In a June 28 letter to Rogers, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr cites three reasons for the decision, including the DNR’s contention that Rogers has failed to publish any peer-reviewed results from his research. The agency also cites public safety concerns over Rogers’ unorthodox methods and what it calls “extremely unprofessional behavior” with research bears documented on social media. Rogers now has until the end of this month to remove remaining tracking collars from his study animals.
Rogers contends the DNR’s claims are misstated or overblown, and that the decision represents the culmination of a longstanding effort by some within the agency to shut down his well-publicized research.
The decision was a disappointment to some local officials, who valued Rogers’ research, particularly since his innovative techniques—which allowed him to walk with some study bears through the forest and observe their daily interactions at close range— had attracted considerable publicity for the Ely area, including movies and major BBC documentaries.
“You can’t buy that kind of advertising,” said Ely Mayor Ross Petersen, who expressed deep disappointment in the DNR’s decision. “The DNR has been out to get Lynn Rogers for a long time,” he added. “It’s sad, because there’s really no good reason for it.”
Dan Humay, the former town board chair in Eagles Nest Township, who headed up a local committee that made recommendations to limit problems between humans and bears, echoed Petersen’s sentiments.
“I don’t know if anyone will ever know why there’s such a rub between the DNR and Lynn, but it must be deep-seated,” Humay said. “I’m very much taken aback by this decision.”
Lou Cornicelli, who oversees the DNR’s wildlife research programs, said agency officials were well aware that the decision would be controversial. Cornicelli said the agency is sensitive to the fact that Rogers’ research has brought considerable favorable publicity to the Ely area. “But that’s not the intent of research. It’s supposed to further our understanding and lead to published results.”
Decision in the works for years
DNR officials point to a number of letters that they have sent to Rogers over the past few years that warned him that his lack of published results and a handful of close encounters between people and his radio-collared study bears could threaten his research permit. They also cite several incidents in recent years where the agency said it was forced to destroy some of Rogers’ study bears out of concerns over public safety.
The DNR included new restrictions on Rogers’ research permit last year, which reduced the number of bears he could collar and limited the number of visits he could make to bear dens. And internal emails show that Commissioner Tom Landwehr was actively working to make a case against Rogers. In a Dec. 13, 2012, email exchange, which was obtained by Rogers through a public information request, Landwehr told a critic of Rogers: “We are clamping down on permit constraints while we continue to build our case.
“It will be a big, public battle to rein this in, so we need good information. Yours has been most helpful, thanks much.”
That email and much more is contained in a detailed 82-page rebuttal by Rogers to the DNR. In it, he claims most of the incidents cited by the DNR were the kind of bear-human interactions that have happened routinely for years in Minnesota, without attracting much attention from the DNR, or even complaints from the public.
Rogers, a former U.S. Forest Service biologist, began independent research in Eagles Nest Township in the 1990s in order to study the impact of the longstanding bear feeding done by several residents there. Rogers has hypothesized that such “diversionary feeding” may actually reduce the number of bear complaints during periods of food shortage.
Rogers said bear complaints were rare in Eagles Nest Township during the early years of his research, even though many bears in the area were used to being fed by residents near their homes and summer cabins.
Rogers says that changed when DNR biologist Tom Rusch was assigned as area wildlife manager in Tower, which includes Rogers’ study area. Rogers says Rusch was immediately hostile to his work and began to generate bear complaints on his own in order to build a case against his research.
Rogers said Rusch’s actions essentially poisoned his research because it created a bias in the DNR’s bear complaint reporting system. In most cases, bear complaints are generated by the public contacting the DNR, whereas Rogers claims that Rusch actively solicited complaints, or generated them from casual conversations with residents in the study area.
Rogers said Rusch also pushed his anti-Rogers’ agenda on local residents in his study area. “He has been telling people for years that our research is causing bears to enter people’s yards,” said Rogers.
Humay, who got to know Rusch during meetings of the township’s bear committee, agreed that the DNR biologist seemed biased against Rogers’ methods and advocated destroying bears rather than co-existence. “It’s their way or the highway,” said Humay of the DNR.
Rusch was not able to comment on Rogers’ allegations, but referred questions to Cornicelli. Cornicelli said he would not respond to Rogers’ claims about Rusch, saying it would not be professional to do so.”We prefer to let the facts speak for themselves,” he said, referring to the years of correspondence between Rogers and the DNR.
Rogers said the DNR further constrained his research and made publishing his findings difficult, by denying his requests to cite DNR bear complaint data from years prior to Rusch’s arrival as documentation of his hypothesis. He said such lack of cooperation from the agency made it difficult to publish because the DNR’s bear complaint data was the only practical, quantitative means of demonstrating the validity of his ideas.
Rogers’ supporters, such as Mayor Petersen, believe Rogers earned a bullseye from the DNR years ago, when he advocated for the preservation of large white pine, which his research suggested were important shelter trees for young bears. “There was a lot of animosity over the white pine issue,” said Petersen. “They now have adopted much of what Lynn was arguing, but they were angry at the time.”
Rogers claims top staff in the DNR sought to end his research back then, but former DNR Commissioner Allen Garber refused to go along.
In Landwehr, Petersen says, top officials in the DNR found a willing ally in their quest to end Rogers’ work. “We have been asking all along to have a discussion with the agency on the science involved,” said Petersen. “They haven’t wanted to talk. It was obvious they were just going to take the flak and just walk away.”
Rogers pushed the research envelope
While Rogers’ unique method of bear research was pioneering, he sometimes strayed into questionable territory for a scientist. He was an aggressive public promoter of his own work, and took a commercial approach to funding his studies, offering courses that allowed participants to get close, and even hand feed, wild bears. He also raised tens of thousands of dollars from the enormous publicity generated by the first bear birth ever broadcast live on the Internet. That young bear cub, named Hope by Rogers’ many fans, was eventually abandoned by its mother, which would have normally doomed the cub. But Rogers intervened and fed the young bear until it was able to survive on its own— and raised several hundred thousand dollars in the process from people who followed Hope’s saga through daily web updates.
Rogers defended his decision to raise Hope, suggesting that the bear offered unprecedented research potential. He noted that the funds went to pay for his research and to pay off debt from construction of the North American Bear Center, which Rogers helped finance. At the time, however, some officials and commentators complained that Rogers was co-mingling science and commerce more than was appropriate.
“It was a very difficult decision for us,” said Cornicelli. “We brought up our concerns about public safety and the lack of published research with Rogers for years and were finally forced to take action.”
The tipping point, according to Cornicelli, may have been a video showing Rogers smacking one of the bears and complaints that Rogers was mistreating the bears he was collaring.
At the same time, Cornicelli said the DNR’s decision should have little impact on the North American Bear Center started by Rogers. “Those issues are mutually exclusive,” he said, noting that the center has a game farm permit for the bears, who have been raised in captivity there.
The center can still provide education about black bears, he said. It will, however, affect the summer courses where Rogers charged $2,500 for people to join him when he radio-collared bears, Cornicelli said.
Little recourse for Rogers
Rogers said he’s already discussed his situation with one of the state’s top environmental lawyers, but was advised that suing the DNR in court would be very expensive and likely unsuccessful. “We were basically told we have no recourse,” said Rogers.
But Rogers has turned to public opinion in the past, and he responded quickly to the DNR’s decision, contacting media outlets throughout the state.
But Cornicelli said the DNR can’t always make decisions based on what’s popular. “Ultimately, it’s not an issue of social media and who can generate the most emails,” he said.
“We’re charged with protecting public safety,” said Cornicelli. “And this isn’t something out of the blue. It was a tough decision and we stand by it.”