Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North Ely Mayor: “Landwehr’s Gotta Go

By Shawn Perich

Ely mayor Ross Petersen doesn’t mince words. In the Oct. 4 edition of the Ely Timberjay, Petersen wrote in his regular column, From the Mayor: “…could someone please tell the rest of the world that Ely and its mayor are not the ones harassing Lynn Rogers and shooting his bears. I’m getting hate emails and phone calls from different parts of the world. If this anger should be directed at anyone, it’s the top officials at the Minnesota DNR. In my opinion, Commissioner Tom Landwehr and wildlife manager Ed Boggess should both be fired.”

As just about anyone with access to a television or the daily news knows, Dr. Lynn Rogers is Ely’s “bear man.” A former federal wildlife biologist who now operates the nonprofit North American Bear Center, Rogers is famed worldwide for his unique technique of quietly following bears through the forest to observe them going about their daily business. He has installed web cams in bear dens, allowing thousands of people, including school kids, to watch bears give birth and care for cubs. A bear named Hope became an Internet “star” as people followed her daily movements.

Rogers is equally famed for his run-ins with authorities, most notably the Minnesota DNR. Last July, the agency revoked Roger’s longstanding research permit, which allows him to radio-collar bears. The agency’s reason for the revocation was that Rogers had failed to publish any results from his research in scientific journals and his practice of feeding bears to get close to them is a public safety issue. The ensuing controversy drew national media coverage as Rogers battled the DNR, eventually achieving a temporary resolution that allows him to continue working with previously collared bears. The controversy also energized his followers throughout the world; many of whom sent angry emails and letters to government officials—including Mayor Petersen.

According to Petersen, it didn’t have to happen this way. He wrote that he and a St. Louis County commissioner contacted the DNR leaders multiple times beginning in January to “consider our tourism economy and keep local elected officials involved when dealing with Dr. Rogers.” He contends the agency did not involve local officials prior to pulling Roger’s research permit last July. Mayor Petersen thinks the controversy has damaged Ely’s tourism. He wrote that the shenanigans surrounding DNR’s revocation of Rogers’ research “created so much negative press, a million dollars in Explore Minnesota advertising won’t come close to offsetting the damage they have done.”

Curious and somewhat admiring the Mayor’s deft hyperbole, I contacted him for an interview to learn more about his views. He said Rogers contacted him and a county commissioner last January, saying his research permit was up for renewal. Rogers asked if the elected officials could explain to the DNR that his work with bears and the publicity it attracts is important to Ely’s economy.

“You couldn’t buy the kind of publicity generated by Hope the Bear,” Petersen said. “Hope’s followers voted for Ely to be the Coolest Small Town in America.”

Indeed, Ely was named the 2010 Coolest Small Town in America in a nationwide contest by Budget Travel, due in large part to votes cast by Rogers’ enthusiastic fans. That same year, nearby Bear Head State Park was voted America’s Favorite Park in a contest sponsored by Coca-Cola. The park, which is operated by the Minnesota DNR, was awarded $100,000. In 2011, another nearby DNR property, Tower-Soudan State Park, was awarded $50,000 for placing second in the Coca-Cola contest. In both contests, votes cast from around the world by Rogers’ fans were the deciding factor.

“I talk to people all the time who first heard about Ely through the North American Bear Center,” Petersen said.

If Roger’s publicity machine has successfully promoted Ely and channeled $150,000 into DNR coffers, why is he so often at odds with the agency? Peterson believes the feud has gone on for decades. He points to the time, years ago, when Rogers, then a federal wildlife biologist, said cutting down scattered mature white pines in the course of clear-cutting aspen was detrimental to bears, which frequently made use of the big trees. At the time, Rogers was branded as an anti-logging advocate by many foresters. Today, however, most of the big white pines are left standing in aspen harvest areas to provide wildlife habitat. But Petersen says he still hears foresters who label Rogers as anti-logging. Another label attached to Rogers is “anti-hunting,” because the well-publicized killing of his radio-collared bears by licensed hunters has been championed as a cause by anti-hunters—angering DNR officials and some northern legislators.

Petersen said Rogers, who is 74, would have been willing to phase out his radio-collar program and discussed options for doing so with community leaders. Communication between Ely officials and the DNR didn’t occur prior to the agency’s decision to revoke the permit.

“But, no. The DNR couldn’t discuss it with anyone,” Petersen said.

Commissioner Landwehr, who I also interviewed, has a somewhat different perspective.

“The issue between the DNR and Rogers is a research permit, not an economic development permit,” he said.

Landwehr said a meeting with Ely officials had been scheduled for last winter, but was cancelled by the officials and not rescheduled. The DNR decision to revoke the permit was predicated by public safety concerns for home and cabin owners near Rogers’ bear-feeding area, because the bears are not wary of humans. One bear stuck its head through an open car window with children inside. Another bear cornered children in a garage. When a conservation officer arrived, the bear approached the officer, who felt compelled to shoot it when it nuzzled his pocket looking for peanuts.

“He’s teaching bears to view humans as a source of food,” Landwehr said.

Mayor Petersen is entitled to his opinion regarding the DNR, Landwehr said, also pointing out that the agency plays a far greater role in the Ely community than regulating Rogers. The agency was involved in fire-fighting efforts when the town was threatened by wildfire a few years ago. The DNR also stocks lakes with fish and manages wildlife.

“We will continue to work with Ely and St. Louis County, but we still need to do what we think is appropriate for public resources and safety,” Landwehr said.

While Landwehr is correct to point out the DNR’s ultimate responsibility is to natural resources and the public, perhaps he should take to heart Petersen’s view that better decisions are made when all of the affected parties are involved in the decision-making progress. Pardon the pun, but the 1,000-pound black bear in the room throughout Lynn Rogers’s controversy is the simple fact the man has discovered a way to educate the general public about black bears. And, as proven by the awarding of $150,000 to Minnesota state parks, he’s showed the public how to demonstrate their concern for the natural world with the simple click of a mouse button. Whatever his transgressions, Rogers has successfully found a way to make wildlife relevant to the mainstream public.

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