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Latest shooting of research bear dredges up old debate

After losing another research bear, Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers says he might again pursue legislation that would make it illegal for hunters to shoot one of his radio-collared bears.

"I'm thinking about it," Rogers said Wednesday, "because educating the hunters didn't work."

Rogers, who studies bears through his Wildlife Research Institute near Ely, lost one of his

14 radio-collared bears in the past few days. The yearling bear's collar was anonymously dropped off Tuesday morning at a Department of Natural Resources mailbox in Tower.

Minnesota's bear season opened Sept. 1 and continues through Oct. 17.

Although it is legal for hunters to shoot a radio-collared bear, the DNR this year asked hunters not to shoot them. In addition to Rogers' research bears between Ely and Tower, the DNR also has about 35 radio-collared bears that it monitors. It has lost two of them to hunters so far this fall.

Rogers has had seven of his radio-collared bears killed by hunters, five of them in the past six years.

The death of the most recent bear, named Sarah, again raises the question of whether hunters should be allowed to kill bears wearing radio collars. Many, including Facebook fans of Rogers' research across the country, are calling for the DNR to ban shooting of collared bears.

Rogers initially tried to get the Minnesota Legislature to consider such a prohibition in the 2010 session but said he backed off after conferring with the Minnesota Bear Guides Association. The association, which opposes such a ban, offered to help educate hunters about not shooting collared bears.

"I said through education, we're going to be better off," said Dennis Udovich of Greaney.

Udovich and DNR bear researchers say such a law could inadvertently penalize a hunter who doesn't see a bear's collar before shooting.

"There are lots of instances where hunters do not see the radio collars," said DNR bear research biologist Karen Noyce of Grand Rapids. "It's easy for people to think, 'How could they not see that?' We have talked to dozens of hunters over the years. Most of them did not see the collar."

The DNR, Noyce said, has had "hundreds" of its radio-collared bears taken by hunters over the years. For many years, the DNR did not discourage hunters from shooting collared bears, but the agency does so now.

Two bears collared by the DNR have been shot this fall.

"It's not always easy to detect a collared bear, even if it's blaze orange or has streamers," said the DNR's Dennis Simon, chief of the DNR's wildlife section. "It could be light conditions, the angle, open sights on a gun. A big bear will groom (its fur) over the collar. Colors fade on collars."

Simon fears some hunters will make inadvertent mistakes and kill collared bears. That could make hunters less willing to register bears or return expensive collars, Simon said.

The DNR's Simon said the agency received 10 comments following the recent death of Rogers' research bear. Eight of those were against hunting collared bears or hunting in general, he said.

State Rep. David Dill (DFL-Crane Lake) says Rogers is the only person who has ever proposed to him a ban on shooting collared bears. He said such legislation could be considered, but some standardization of collars and their appearance would have to be in place to make it fair.

"We don't want to set up a situation where we make the hunter a bad guy," said Dill, who chairs the Game, Fish and Forestry subcommittee of the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee. "I have a concern that could happen."

Rogers says that situation could be handled through enforcement.

"I think that somebody writing the ticket could use some discretion," Rogers said.

The DNR maintains that the current system is best, and that researchers must adapt to it.

"Researchers who are working with collared bears need to work that into their research design, that they're occasionally going to lose an animal," Simon said.