By Shawn Perich
The Ely Timberjay reports that we may see another round of the ongoing battle between the Minnesota DNR and Ely’s Lynn Rogers, who operates the popular North American Bear Center. The agency is proposing legislation to ban bear baiting that, according to a Timberjay editorial, specifically targets Rogers’ operation.
Over roughly the last two years, the DNR has been locked in an extensive court battle with Rogers after the agency revoked his research permit, which allowed him to radio-collar and follow free-ranging bears. Rogers told the Associated Press that his legal bills have topped $420,000, tapping out his organization’s cash reserves. The only way he can fund his ongoing legal fight is through his bear study courses, where students spend $2,400 and spend several days at the center, observing wild bears at close range. The reason they can do so is because Rogers feeds bears on the premises. Rogers told the Timberjay that if he is unable to feed bears, his organization will lose the income from the bear study classes and will have to shut down. Call it death by legislation.
The legislative proposal specifically bans hand-feeding bears, which the Timberjay contends Rogers has done without incident for many years. It would also allow the issuance of feeding permits for research purposes. Feeding birds and other wildlife, as well as bear-baiting, are allowed under the proposal.
The Timberjay also contacted another popular bear-feeding operation, the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary near Orr. There a now-deceased logger fed the bears to keep them from breaking into his outbuildings. Eventually, the man and his bears became a tourist attraction. After he died, a nonprofit organization was formed to keep the feeding the bears and allow the popular attraction to remain open. The leader of that organization, the North American Bear Association, told the Timberjay he was unsure how legislative proposal may affect them. The sanctuary prohibits hand-feeding of bears and does not allow visitors to feed the bears candy or other treats they may have with them.
In an editorial, the Timberjay points out that the DNR has little evidence that bear feeding poses a public safety risk. The agency hasn’t regulated other forms of wildlife feeding, including for deer, which do pose public safety risk when they are crossing roads near feeding sites. Indeed, the DNR has left deer feeding bans in the purview of local governments, generally municipalities. The newspaper rightly opines that the Legislature ought to reject the DNR’s proposed bear feeding legislation.
The DNR’s dogged legal and now legislative attacks on Rogers are largely funded by the Game and Fish Fund, which is comprised of hunting and fishing license fees. It is difficult to see how hunters and anglers are served by what appears to be a DNR vendetta. Perhaps the agency, rather than Rogers, needs additional scrutiny.
Sadly, the DNR isn’t the only state agency currently taking the Big Brother approach to problem solving. Recently, over 150 citizens packed the Cook County courtroom in a show of support for a local farmer who sells raw (unpasteurized) milk on his farm. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has tried to enter the farm for an inspection and was verbally told to stay off the property by the farmer. At a later date, the agency entered an unoccupied milk house on the farm and took pictures. They did not have permission to be on the property.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Department has told the MDA they will not assist with a forced inspection of the farm. Their reasoning is based on a line in the Minnesota constitution: “Any person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license therefor.” So the MDA took another approach. They petitioned the Cook County Court to find the farmer in contempt of court for refusing to allow an inspection on his farm. In the petition, they attempted to charge the farmer for the agency’s expenses in their attempts to force an inspection and to levy a $500 per day fine until he submits to an inspection.
In the courtroom, the judge listened to the arguments and responses and then stayed a previous “order of inspection” issued by him due to the issues now presented in the case. He also issued a temporary ruling that the farmer was not in contempt of court. The judge will review the issues and release a ruling within 90 days.
The farm has strong local support from both its customers and from folks who believe a farmer has a right to sell his products on the premises. After the court hearing, the Cook County Board of Commissioners passed a letter of support to that effect. All of the farm’s customers know what they are buying and make a conscious choice to do so. They believe they have the right to make a private transaction with the farmer.
Of course, echoing the situation between the DNR and Lynn Rogers, the MDA isn’t likely to go away. Supporters of the farmer are starting a legal fund to help the farm family with their legal expenses. Some folks who are closely following the case warn that it may take years to resolve.
All of us, as individuals, have limited financial resources to enter into legal battles with state agencies that have, by comparison, unlimited resources to continue the fight. Also, as individuals, we have virtually no voice over the battles those agencies choose to fight or the methods they use to do so. The situations faced by Rogers and the Cook County farmer can certainly be characterized as David versus Goliath legal struggles. Whether they represent an abuse of power by state agencies is a matter of debate. At the very least, anytime state agencies threaten an individual with financial ruin their actions deserve very public scrutiny.