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Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio, Published September 21 2012

Researcher feeds bears to get close to them

EAGLES NEST TOWNSHIP, Minn. – Bear hunting season in Minnesota is always a nerve-wracking time of year for Lynn Rogers. So far this year, none of the bears the controversial researcher is studying near Ely have been shot by hunters.

But last month, the Department of Natural Resources shot a bear with one of Rogers’ tracking collars. The animal had refused to leave an area where children were present. That bear’s death lies at the heart of a longstanding tension between Rogers and mainstream wildlife scientists.

There are lots of slogans. Never feed a bear. A fed bear is a dead bear. Don’t feed the bears.

But that’s exactly what Rogers does. He feeds bears, right out of his hand, to gain their trust so he can more closely observe their behavior.

On a recent day, Rogers hoped that trust would help him track a bear named June. Assisted by Sue Mansfield, the researcher tracked June from the front seat of Rogers’ van. The bear’s GPS collar sends a signal to Mansfield’s iPad.

After more than a half hour of hiking, the researchers start to catch up to June.

At a clearing, Rogers and Mansfield stop. June emerges from the woods like a shadow. She ambles straight to Rogers, who then does something most scientists would never do: he feeds her a mound of pecans right from of his hand.

Rogers’ approach and his den cameras have won him an intensely loyal online following. He has gained international prominence through documentaries on the BBC and Animal Planet.

“If he sticks to his objective of learning more about their behavior, he’ll learn some things that are really interesting, and we’d all like to hear about,” said biologist John Beecham, who chairs an international group studying human-bear conflicts.

But Beecham is concerned Rogers has another motive.

“To basically show people that bears aren’t as ferocious as the media would have you believe,” Beecham said. “Then he gets into pretty thin ice.”

Beecham agrees black bears are generally docile and fearful of humans but says that is only half the story.

“If you’re not careful, you could get into a situation where the bear’s going to react in an unpredictable way, and somebody could get hurt,” Beecham said.

And problem bears are often shot. Rogers doesn’t dispute that inappropriately feeding bears can be dangerous to the animals. But he argues providing food can also keep bears out of trouble.

Rogers published data last year showing nuisance bear complaints around Ely dropped by more than 80 percent in the 1980s through a practice known as diversionary feeding. Bears were able to find food in strategic places to keep them from breaking into cabins or tipping over garbage cans.

“If they don’t have food in the woods, they’re going to come find it someplace. As long as we feed the bears, they coexist with us, they don’t do any damage to our properties,” Don Midtling, of Eagles Nest Township, said.

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