Researcher Lynn Rogers feeds the bears, battles critics

Rogers feeds June by hand
Wildlife Research Institute biologist Lynn Rogers hand feeds June, a 300-plus-pound pregnant black bear, on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 in the woods near Ely, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Bear hunting season in Minnesota is always a nerve-wracking time of year for Lynn Rogers. So far this year, none of the bears the controversial researcher is studying near Ely have been shot by hunters.

But last month, the Department of Natural Resources shot a bear with one of Rogers' tracking collars. The animal had refused to leave an area where children were present. That bear's death lies at the heart of a longstanding tension between Rogers and mainstream wildlife scientists.

There are lots of slogans. Never feed a bear. A fed bear is a dead bear. Don't feed the bears.

• Photos: Bear researcher Lynn Rogers keeps making tracks

But that's exactly what Rogers does. He feeds bears, right out of his hand, to gain their trust so he can more closely observe their behavior.

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On a recent day, Rogers hoped that trust would help him track a bear named June, a female he's been studying for nearly a decade. Assisted by Sue Mansfield, the researcher tracks June from the front seat of Rogers' van. The bear's GPS collar sends a signal to Mansfield's iPad. The small screen displays several dots moving across a map. Each dot represents a bear wearing one of Rogers' collars.

As the road reaches a dead end, the researchers hop out of the van and start bushwhacking through a dense forest of birch and fir. At 73, Rogers strides easily over moss-covered logs and boulders. Every so often he stops and holds a radio antenna over his head, trying to locate June.

It's a couple days before the start of hunting season and Rogers is anxious to add bright fluorescent ribbons to June's collar to identify her as a research subject. It's not illegal for hunters to shoot research bears, but the DNR asks hunters not to.

"It's me bear. It's me, June. Don't run, you're OK. It's me bear," Rogers says.

After more than a half hour of hiking, the researchers start to catch up to June. Mansfield adds her voice to the chorus.

"It's me June," Mansfield shouts. "She knows that my voice means that she's likely to get a handful of nuts. And if that happens to be important to her at this time, she may hold up."

And soon, she does. At a clearing, Rogers and Mansfield stop. June emerges from the woods like a shadow. She ambles straight to Rogers, who then does something most scientists would never do: he feeds her a mound of pecans right from of his hand.

"Boy, you led us on quite a trip," Rogers says. "You couldn't hear us at first, huh?"

Like a big, 300-pound pet, June lies down on the forest floor next to Rogers.

Searching for June
Wildlife Research Institute biologist Lynn Rogers hikes through the woods while trying to locate June, a 300-plus-pound pregnant black bear, near Ely, Minn on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Mansfield changes the batteries in June's GPS collar. She seems oblivious to a microphone and a camera literally inches from her snout. This is why June is so valuable to Rogers' research, he said.

"Because she will go about her business, ignoring us," Rogers said. "She just goes about foraging, or nursing, or digging a den."

June is one branch of a family tree Rogers and Mansfield have been studying for a decade. They're examining details of the bears' social organization, body language, and basically what it's like to be a bear. Providing food, Rogers argues, is the only way he can document those behaviors.

"We can see it, and you have to be in the woods, you have to be close to see them," Rogers said. "If you try to get close to a bear that doesn't accept you, all you see is a bear running away, and you can't learn much from that."

GPS bear tracker
Wildlife Research Institute biologists Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield look at a GPS reading of where the radio-collared bears are located on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 near Ely, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Rogers points out Jane Goodall provided bananas to gain access to chimps, although she later abandoned the practice, which is now controversial in primatology.

Rogers' approach and his den cameras have won him an intensely loyal online following. Over 140-thousand "Lily Fans" follow his research bears on Facebook. He has gained international prominence through documentaries on the BBC and Animal Planet. People pay $2,500 to attend a three-day class with him.

But Rogers' practice of feeding bears has also made him controversial both in Minnesota and among his scientific colleagues.

"If he sticks to his objective of learning more about their behavior, he'll learn some things that are really interesting and we'd all like to hear about," said biologist John Beecham, who chairs an international group studying human-bear conflicts.

But Beecham is concerned Rogers has another motive.

"If he sticks to his objective of learning more about their behavior, he'll learn some things that are really interesting and we'd all like to hear about"

"To basically show people that bears aren't as ferocious as the media would have you believe," Beecham said. "Then he gets into pretty thin ice."

Rogers is unapologetic about that. He says the most important thing he has found is that black bears are not ferocious animals.

Beecham agrees black bears are generally docile and fearful of humans, but says that is only half the story.

"If you're not careful, you could get into a situation where the bear's going to react in an unpredictable way and somebody could get hurt," Beecham said.

Minnesota DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen said those situations are more likely to occur when bears learn they can get food from people.

"If you have someone who's feeding a bear out of their pocket with peanuts, the bear's going to look at that food source and say humans equal food, and that's not a good thing," Niskanen said "That's when you can get into problems."

And problem bears are often shot. Rogers doesn't dispute that inappropriately feeding bears can be dangerous to the animals. But he argues providing food can also keep bears out of trouble.

Rogers published data last year showing nuisance bear complaints around Ely dropped by more than 80 percent in the 1980s through a practice known as diversionary feeding. Hungry bears were able to find food in strategic places to keep them from breaking into cabins or tipping over garbage cans.

While diversionary feeding isn't officially done around Ely anymore, several people surrounding Rogers' research station do feed bears, and they have done it for decades, not as part of any experiment to prevent nuisances but because they want to see bears up close.

"This is Lily, she's on Facebook, Everybody knows Lily if they go on Facebook," said Don Midtling of Eagles Nest Township, as he flips through a stack of pictures he's taken of bears in his yard, including one lounging on a lawn chair. He says he's fed bears ever since he moved down the road from Rogers five years ago.

"If they don't have food in the woods, they're going to come find it someplace," Midtling said. "As long as we feed the bears, they coexist with us, they don't do any damage to our properties."

But Kurt Soderberg, who also lives on the same road as Rogers, says neighbors like Midtling are endangering bears.

"They're put at risk because they might get shot by somebody," Soderberg said. "They're going to cross the highway, they're going to get killed."

Back in the woods, Rogers leaves a handful of pecans on the forest floor for June. Mansfield has finished adding brightly colored strips to the bear's collar.

"Mission accomplished, yeah," Mansfield says.

June disappears into the shadows of the pines, oblivious to the debate surrounding the man who has walked with and fed her for nearly a decade.