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Ely Bear obsession takes us down a murky path

Lily the black bear has made international news this year with the live birth of her cub last month.

Good call.

Bear researcher Lynn Rogers of Ely has made a good decision to let an Internet-famous female black bear and her cub fend mostly for themselves in the woods west of Ely.

After last week intervening to bring together Lily, the 3-year-old mother bear, and Hope, her 4-month-old cub, following a two-day separation, Rogers decided not to intervene again this week when the bears became separated, although he and others with the North American Bear Center are placing bowls of formula in the woods for the cub.

The adult bear seems uninterested in raising the cub, which could reduce its chances of survival. But they are, after all, wild animals, and they should be allowed to live as wild animals.

All of this is complicated by the fact that millions watched Lily and Hope in their den this winter after a tiny camera was placed there by Rogers and Doug Hajicek of White Wolf Entertainment. The den-cam exposure has brought nearly $250,000 in donations to the North American Bear Center at Ely. Rogers chairs its board of directors.

Followers can purchase "I Hibernated with Lily and Hope" T-shirts, "Thank You Bears" coffee mugs and Hope cell-phone ring-tones.

The British Broadcasting Corp. plans to produce a documentary on the two bears.

Although Lily is technically a wild bear, she wears a GPS and radio-telemetry collar around her neck. She is one of several collared bears that Rogers relocates, feeds and visits throughout the summer with clients who pay $1,500 each for four-day "field-study" courses with Rogers.

Hope is not collared, but Rogers has said on the Bear Center website he hopes to catch her and fit her with a "tiny radio collar."

It is not surprising that so many people were enthralled with this chance to observe a denning bear and its cub this past winter. Bears are fascinating and somewhat misunderstood animals. Plus, let's face it. They're furry and cuddly-looking.

What began as a seemingly innocuous placement of a tiny camera in a den evolved into a soap-opera like drama in the past two weeks, fueled by the Bear Center's website and media reports, including almost daily updates in the News Tribune.

As much as anything, the saga of the two bears is a testimony to the power of the Internet. We now have the capability to turn a couple of bears into overnight celebrities and powerful marketing tools.

Minnesota is home to some 20,000 wild black bears. A lot of them had cubs this year. But only Lily and Hope have 98,000 Facebook fans.

It's a debatable practice, this matter of naming wild critters and using them to promote a nonprofit organization. So, for that matter, is feeding them and following them around the woods, which Rogers does under permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

When does a bear become less a subject of research than a creature exploited for its marketability?

When is a wild animal no longer truly wild?