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Appeals court rules against bear researcher Rogers

ELY, Minn. -- The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ruled against Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers in his ongoing dispute with state regulators over handling black bears in the wild, but the court also said Rogers can keep using bear den cameras.

In a decision filed Monday, a three-judge panel of the appellate court ruled that the state Department of Natural Resources commissioner has the right to require a permit for possessing wild animals and that what Rogers was doing with bears — coaxing them with food, befriending the bears and placing radio collars on their necks enabling him to follow them in the woods — was indeed possession under the definition in state law.

"We therefore defer to the commissioner's reasonable interpretation of 'possession' and hold that the act of attaching a radio collar to an habituated black bear with the resulting capacities to remotely track and locate the bear in the wild and to locate the den of the bear, amounts to constructive possession of the wild animal within the meaning of" state statutes, the judges ruled.

The judges thus affirmed a decision by a state administrative law judge and the DNR commissioner.

Rogers said Monday that he will either apply for a new DNR permit to use radio collars or appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

But the judges also gave Rogers an opening to conduct some of his past work without DNR oversight — namely, ruling that cameras fall outside the DNR's jurisdiction.

"The record contains no conclusion, or even a suggestion, that a den cam amounts to possession under the law. As such (Rogers) needs no permit for placement of such cameras," the judges ruled.

"That's some good news. It's sort of a split decision for me," Rogers said. "It's clear now we don't need a permit to do den cams... and I'm thrilled we'll be able to broadcast bear den cams to the world again this winter."

The appeals court also noted that the DNR's permit requirement should not apply to people using trail cameras to take photos of bears.

"No argument is made in this appeal that automated photography of wildlife requires a permit," the judges wrote.

Last September DNR officials said they had made their final decision to strip Rogers of the permits he needs to place radio collars on wild bears. The move came after a lengthy series of legal wranglings through the state court and state administrative law judge process.

The DNR first issued Rogers a permit to collar bears in 1999, and he developed a following for his efforts to habituate bears, name them and follow them through the woods and through their lives. Rogers offered pay-for-view summer tours of collared bears to customers. He also placed cameras inside bear dens in the winter, broadcasting bear births worldwide via the internet, a move that made Rogers a social media star globally.

But in 2013, the DNR decided not to reissue its permit because of public safety concerns, and because of what it said was Rogers' failure to produce peer-reviewed studies based on his research permit. Rogers argued that he hadn't had a fair hearing, and Ramsey County District Court Judge John H. Guthmann ordered the two sides to go before an administrative law judge to settle the matter.

In May 2014, Chief Administrative Law Judge Tammy Pust agreed with the DNR, finding that Rogers' hand-feeding of bears in the Eagles Nest Township area southwest of Ely constituted "a risk to public safety" by habituating the bears to human contact, and conditioning them to associate people with food.