It’s safe to say that wildlife biologist Lynn Rogers gets along better with the black bears in Minnesota than with the humans in the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Rogers, a popular bear researcher who has made numerous TV appearances, is engaged in quite a row with the department. At issue: should the department renew Rogers’ permit to study black bears?
In June, the department said “no.” But trying to come between Rogers and his bears is a bit like trying to come between a mother bear and her cubs. He took the agency to court, and late last month, the parties came to a temporary agreement. Rogers can keep radio collars on the ten research bears that have them now, but he can’t keep live-streaming video on the Internet from his internationally popular den cams.
His case will go back to court in six to nine months. Earlier this month, Rogers received a big boost from renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, who wrote to Minnesota governor Mark Dayton praising Rogers and saying that it would be “a scientific tragedy” if his research were ended now.
The department gave three reasons for not renewing Rogers’ permit: he hadn’t produced any peer-reviewed publications based on data collected over the past 14 years when he had a permit; his work was endangering the public; and he had engaged in unprofessional conduct.
Rogers disputes all these criticisms against him and fires back with ones of his own. The real reasons the department does not want to renew his permit, he says, involve animosity, jealousy and concerns that “the schoolchildren who follow our den cams will grow up to like bears and not want to hunt them.” (Rogers notes that fees from hunting licenses help to fund the department.)
And the claims and counter-claims don’t stop there. Rogers alleges that the department fabricates complaints about bears, which the department says is “preposterous”. In turn, the department says that Rogers pressures people to withdraw their complaints, which Rogers dismisses as “B.S.”
To Rogers, the field classes he offers and the documentaries he stars in are important public-education tools. To the department, they might well look like clever avenues for self-promotion and financial gain.
When Rogers feeds a bear mouth-to-mouth, it may be "unprofessional" as deemed by the department. Or it may be a demonstration of mutual trust, as he sees it.
Years before, the noted biologist and Pulitzer prize-winning author E. O. Wilson had ranked Rogers’ work with that of Goodall and other research giants in his 1975 book Sociobiology. At the time, Rogers was an up-and-coming student at the University of Minnesota, already doing ground-breaking research.
Earlier studies of social organization in animals had concentrated on gregarious, group-living species such as chimpanzees and elephants. Rogers’ work with bears was quite possibly the first study of a solitary species, and he discovered a very different type of social organization — a system in which females held territories and passed them on to their daughters.
His work earned him accolades and awards. Another celebrated study was one in which he described how food supplies in the woods affect human-bear interactions: in years when food supplies are low, bears come into town looking for something to eat much more often than in years when nuts and berries are abundant. “It’s the most obvious thing,” Rogers says, “but nobody had ever looked at it before. And people still fail to pay attention to it now.”
Even some who find fault with Rogers today are fans of his early work. “Lynn is a smart guy,” says David Garshelis, a bear researcher with the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. “He knows a ton about bear behavior. He was a good bear researcher and scientist, well respected, 20 years ago.”