Ely researcher's bear work has been lightning rod for fame, controversy
EAGLES NEST TOWNSHIP, Minn. -- Lynn Rogers' work with black bears has been controversial for years. Now, with the real-time saga of Hope and Lily playing out on computer screens around the world, Rogers has attracted unprecedented fame.
Dubbed the Bear Walker of the Northwoods, Rogers' transition over the past 25 years to studying bears by befriending them has morphed into TV documentaries, creation of the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn., and elevation of Rogers to near-mythical status among thousands of animal lovers.
"Anything that helps me educate people about bears, and to learn more about bears, is good," Rogers said recently at his Wildlife Research Institute in the woods outside Ely while waiting for a BBC camera crew to arrive. "It's not about me; it's about the bears."
But, as often happens with Rogers' work, critics have weighed in with questions about his methodology and motives.
"People criticize the attention one or two bears can get," he said Friday. "But how many other research bears have become worldwide ambassadors for bears, including endangered bears?"
That ambassadorship has earned more than 98,000 Facebook fans for Lily and Hope, and more than $250,000 in Internet donations to the Bear Center.
"I believe in you, Hope," wrote Michelle Chartier on Lily and Hope's Facebook site, one of many heartfelt messages left by fans who check regularly for the latest word on the mother bear and her cub. "You have taught me so much and I thank you for that, and I hope I can be a part of your life and watch you grow up to be a big bear and one day have cubs of your own."
The Bear Center's website, www.bear.org, showing apparently the first televised wild black bear birth, received millions of visits over the winter -- 3 million in January alone.
Rogers, 71, gets requests for interviews nearly every week from TV and radio stations, documentary producers, newspapers and magazines worldwide. He nearly always says yes. He is at the epicenter of a strange mix of research science, showmanship and commerce that has created a regular niche for himself and co-researcher Sue Mansfield on the BBC and Animal Planet. For $1,500 a person, their vacation field trips for the public to walk with bears are sold out months in advance.
Visitors to the website and Bear Center can buy Lily and Hope mousepads for their computer and download a Hope ring tone for their cell phones, all aimed at funding the Bear Center.
It's all a bit much for some traditional wildlife researchers, who said that Rogers' work makes for great natural history stories but does little to help wildlife managers assess the balance of bears, habitat and people.
Sometimes called a bear advocate over a bear researcher, Rogers also has drawn criticism that his work isn't producing scientific results.
Rogers and his co-researchers are "contributing to a more nuanced, finer-scale understanding of black bear behavior and ecology. ... Walking with habituated black bears and observing details of their daily lives allows for a finer scale of data collection related to topics such as foraging and habitat use than is possible using radio telemetry," said Stephen Herrero, an Alberta bear expert, in a 2008 report to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reviewing Rogers' work. "However ... I find it difficult to fully evaluate the scientific merit of the proposed research because of a lack of detail related to methods."
Rogers' application for a bear study permit was "not a traditional research project," Herrero noted. "It does not clearly identify specific research questions and the methods by which the questions will be studied."
Marty Obbard, an Ontario bear expert, agreed.
"In general, I found that the methods and objectives are not well-developed," Obbard said in his report to the DNR on Rogers' permit application.
Rogers is in a minority camp among researchers when it comes to feeding bears so they don't bother nearby homeowners. He contends that feeding reduces complaints about bears in garbage cans and bird feeders, and he notes that bears in the area have never acted hostile toward people -- though some have complained of close calls, including a nipped hand.
Others say it makes garbage animals out of wild bears. Some say it's downright dangerous, as bears -- usually docile but still big and powerful -- lose their fear of humans.
While Obbard and Herrero said there might be value in testing diversionary feeding of bears during years of poor wild food, they said long-term feeding can cause artificially high bear populations and create conflict. Rogers' and Mansfield's own published research has found that bears fed by humans reach maximum body mass faster than wild bears and can grow twice as big.
"It seems to me that the bear population in the study area is now trapped in an endless loop that is maintained by the diversionary feeding program," Obbard wrote, noting that bigger bears need more food, possibly more than they can easily find in the wild. Feeding bears in Eagles Nest Township, Obbard said, "has created a management monster."
Rogers, who has studied bears for 44 years, is undaunted by criticism. He said he's doing some of the most important research he's ever done and that some people simply can't comprehend that his methods may benefit bears.
"For years, I was counting and weighing and tracking tranquilized bears and wasn't doing anything to help bears," Rogers said in a February interview with the News Tribune. "Between the Lily Den Cam and the three or four documentaries that are out or in the works, we're reaching millions of people. We're letting the world see what we have (in and around Ely), and we're changing attitudes about bears."