By Shawn Perich
After reading a recent story about the latest twist in the legal wrangling between Ely bear biologist Lynn Rogers and the Minnesota DNR, you might conclude that the sandbox just isn’t big enough for the both of them. On May 1, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported Chief Administrative Law Judge Tammy Pust ordered the DNR to turn over 28 pages of documents it had withheld from Rogers, who seeks to regain a research permit the agency took away from him last year. Rogers contends the documents reveal the agency has it in for him. He may be right.
For decades, Rogers has fed bears in order to get close to them, including following the animals in the forest as they go about their daily lives. The DNR research permit allows him to radio-collar bears so he can locate them throughout the year, including in their winter dens. He has set up video cameras in dens, which allowed thousands of people worldwide to see, via the Internet, the winter birth and nurturing of bear cubs. For several years, the North American Bear Center has promoted learning sessions in which paying customers can observe the bears at his feeding site and accompany Rogers into the forest when he walks with the bears.
The DNR says that although Rogers had a research permit, he has not published peer-reviewed research in years, a condition of the permit. The agency also contends the bears he feeds are a public nuisance, because they are acclimated to humans. Both were cited as reasons to take the research permit away from him.
Rogers, who operates the North American Bear Center in Ely, believes the DNR documents demonstrate the agency’s bias against him. Included in the documents is an email from DNR bear researcher Dave Garshelis to other members of a panel that was writing a paper on “diversionary feeding,” which is providing bears with an alternative food source to prevent human/bear conflicts. Angry that someone on the panel had shared a draft of the paper with Rogers, Garshelis threatened to have the individual removed from the panel. Rogers had been a member of the panel, but other panel members decided to not allow him to participate in writing the paper.
Rogers and Garshelis have publicly debated this topic in the past. A story dated May 5, 2010, in National Geographic News is titled “Please DO Feed the Bears, Researcher Says.” In the story, Rogers says hungry bears cause most bear nuisance problems, so a nonlethal solution to the problems may be providing the bears with food – diversionary feeding. The method was used successfully near Lake Tahoe during a time when natural bear food sources were diminished by drought.
However, other bear experts interviewed for the story say Roger’s research on the topic, as well as the work at Lake Tahoe, was not published in peer-reviewed scientific publications. The story quotes Garshelis, who says, “There is no question that routine feeding leads to bears losing their wariness of people, and thus they’re more likely to approach closer to people. If that’s something that one likes, then I guess that’s a good thing for those people – but not for the bears, if you believe that four million years of evolved bear behavior is something to treasure and not tinker with.”
Garshelis goes on to say,” “Whether or not this is a bad thing is a matter of opinion. I happen to think it is.”
While the court will likely make its decision based upon whether Rogers fulfilled the conditions of his research permit, it likely won’t address his assertion that DNR is biased against him. But those of us who are footing the bill for this long-running battle between Rogers and the agency – Minnesota hunting and fishing license buyers – really need to wonder if the DNR has crossed a line from science to vindictiveness. A comment by a DNR spokesman toward the end of the Star Tribune story suggests the latter may have occurred. In defense of the DNR’s decision to withhold documents from Rogers, the spokesman pointed out the Ely biologist previously sent the DNR a box of bear dung as evidence.
In a follow-up email, DNR Communications Director Chris Niskanen confirmed the agency received such a box, and also said Rogers withheld evidence and was ordered by the court to turn it over to the agency.
“Weeks prior to the hearing, the DNR asked for Rogers’ research data and he didn’t comply,” Niskanen wrote. “The judge compelled him to produce it and the agency received it three days before the hearing began.”
Still, when a public agency, after being ordered by the court to turn over documents, defends its actions by talking about a box of dung it received, it is fair to ask if the agency is serving its public constituency – Minnesota hunters and anglers – or serving itself. If the DNR and Rogers are – figuratively speaking – trading volleys of poop, perhaps they should settle their differences in a backyard sandbox rather than in a court of law.
Due to Rogers’ celebrity, his dispute with the DNR has become a media circus. The challenge facing the DNR is to avoid becoming mired in the circus. If Rogers agreed to the DNR’s conditions in order to receive a research permit, then he ought to abide by those conditions. That said, whether or not Rogers’ work with bears is pure science, the DNR ought to publicly acknowledge his significant contributions to a greater public acceptance of black bears – animals that are unnecessarily feared and maligned. It’s time for the agency to put a positive spin on this story.