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Rogers’ hand-feeding of bears increases risk for public, scientist testifies

By Dave Orrick

ST. PAUL -- Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers’ practice of hand-feeding wild bears is “a terrible idea” that is “very dangerous” and increases the risk of bear attacks on the general public, a federal government bear scientist said Thursday.

Stewart Breck, a wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., testified Wednesday and Thursday in what is essentially a trial for Rogers’ research methods.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has accused Rogers of creating a public safety risk by hand-feeding wild black bears in northern Minnesota. A legal proceeding in St. Paul, before the state’s chief administrative law judge, began Monday as part of Rogers’ attempt to overturn the DNR’s decision last year not to renew his long-standing research permit that includes attaching radio collars to bears.

The 74-year-old Rogers, who has gained an international following for live-streaming Internet cameras of bear dens, for years has employed controversial methods that involve hand-feeding bears as part of a process to build their trust.

The results are remarkable: Rogers is able to walk, pet, examine, take the heart rate of, and place and remove radio collars on bears without the aid of tranquilizers or traps — tools widely used by bear researchers. Rogers’ ability to walk in the woods, call out, “It’s me, bear,” and have a bear approach him have earned him celebrity status in some circles, thanks in part to documentaries featuring him.

Supporters compare him with trailblazing chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall. Critics compare him with Timothy Treadwell, aka “Grizzly Man,” a jovial researcher who filmed himself cavorting with Alaskan grizzly bears and was ultimately eaten by one.

Rogers has said the trust he builds is crucial to studying social interactions and other aspects of bear behavior.

But food is at the core of that trust — food offered out of the hands of Rogers, his associates, volunteers and paying participants in the programs of his Wildlife Research Institute and related North American Bear Center.

And that’s ill-advised, according to policies of parks, wildlife and government across the United States and Canada, as well as many bear scientists, such as Breck.

Breck is among a number of experts expected to be called by the DNR to bolster the agency’s contention that the hand-feeding of bears by Rogers and those with him teaches bears not only to lose their fear of people but also to see people as a source of food.

“I think it increases risk to people hand-feeding bears,” Breck said Thursday after his testimony. “It changes the behavior and the ecology of bears, which can be a bad thing. And it increases risk of attacks occurring on people encountering a bear (who) are not used to a bear that is that habituated to people.”

Breck said his opinion was shared by the “vast majority of wildlife professionals.” David Marshall, Rogers’ attorney, tried to cast doubt on that last assertion by getting Breck to acknowledge that not every opinion he holds is held by every other researcher.

Breck’s areas of focus include studying carnivore-human interactions, ranging from hazing coyotes to bears lured by human food. For example, one published study examined National Park Service data from vehicle break-ins by bears. Bears prefer minivans, he concluded.

There are no published scientific studies that directly explore hand-feeding of wild bears and whether it leads to attacks or other conflicts. Breck and other researchers have said that attempting to design such a study could be dangerous and unethical because it could involve subjecting people to bear attacks and altering wild bear behavior in ways that could be harmful to bears and people.

Nonetheless, many of North America’s leading bear researchers believe bears that become comfortable with people and see people as a source of food will likely lead to conflict, according to Pioneer Press interviews and reviews of published research last year. Hand-feeding is illegal in the majority of states, though not in Minnesota.