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Bear researcher's two-week ‘trial’ concludes; judge will issue report in late April

By Dave Orrick

ST. PAUL -- Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers on Thursday said the bears he studies, despite being habituated to people from feeding, aren’t more dangerous.

“Emphatically no,” he said when asked. “The opposite is true, as we know from many studies. There is nothing in the literature that suggests habituation increases likelihood of attack.”

It’s the type of statement Rogers, 74, has made for years in defending his controversial methods, which include hand-feeding wild black bears.

But the audience was different this time. In was the state’s chief administrative law judge.

For nearly three hours Thursday, Rogers testified at the climax of a two-week administrative hearing that amounted to his research and methods being put on trial, with the Department of Natural Resources playing prosecutor.

The DNR has accused Rogers of creating a public safety risk through his hand-feeding — and occasional mouth-feeding — of bears. The DNR says bears in Rogers’ study area — Eagles Nest Township between Tower and Ely — have come to see people as a source of food, and that’s made them more dangerous.

Last year, the DNR refused to renew Rogers’ research permit, which had been in place in one form or another since 1999. Rogers challenged that decision, which led to the hearing before Chief Administrative Law Judge Tammy Pust in St. Paul.

Under questioning from DNR attorney Linda Jensen, Rogers denied he “trains” bears, an allegation made by DNR officials.

Jensen probed Rogers’ definition of “diversionary feeding,” the topic he says he’s studying. A number of residents of Eagles Nest Township — perhaps more than a dozen — feed bears to varying degrees. Rogers’ said it was this behavior that attracted him to the area in the 1990s.

Among Rogers’ claims that are often debated among wildlife biologists is whether, in cases when bears are causing problems with homes, incidents can be reduced by providing food for them elsewhere.

“Feeding that, whether by intent or not, diverts bears from problem areas,” Rogers described it.

Since Rogers has stated he doesn’t believe there are problems in the area, Jensen sought to question what diversionary feeding was happening, since there were no problems. The cabin of Rogers’ Wildlife Research Institute feeds bears around the clock outside the denning season, and it’s the DNR’s contention that the real effect is less research than luring the animals so paying participants in Rogers’ “bear course” can pet them, feed them if they wish and photograph themselves with them. Jensen probed this.

“What do you call the activity of diverting a bear from where it is to where you want it to be?” she asked.

“It depends on the effect you have on the bear,” Rogers answered. “Is it avoiding problems? … People feed for different reasons.”

Jensen: “Do you divert bears to your feeders that are not causing problems for anyone?”

Rogers: “That’s hard to say.”

And so it went, through several restatements of the question, with apparently no clear answer, a scene complicated by what appeared to be Rogers’ difficulty in hearing Jensen. Eventually Pust spoke up, “I think you’ve asked it as many times as you can, and you’ve gotten the only answers you’re going to get.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Rogers wasn’t asked in any detail about his mouth-feeding of bears. It’s unclear how often it’s done, but until 2012, when the DNR placed restrictions on Rogers’ permit, instructions for his bear course included tips that related to feeding bears from participants’ mouths. Rogers has defended what he calls the “bear’s kiss” as a way to show bears can be gentle. He said he hasn’t fed a bear mouth-to-mouth since restrictions were placed on the permit.

Earlier in the day, Rogers’ top staff member, Sue Mansfield, was asked about mouth-feeding by Jensen.

Jensen asked Mansfield, “Is there any research value in having bears come into the research cabin?”

Mansfield responded: “I’m not sure how to respond to that because the response would be so long that I’m not sure we have time for it.”

In closing arguments, Rogers’ attorney, David Marshall, said the DNR failed to meet its burden to show Pust it was justified in failing to renew the permit. He said the examples of mouth-feeding and course participants feeding bears inside the cabin were over-emphasized — and all there was.

“The DNR’s case is about photographs and movies,” Marshall said. “It’s about sensationalizing.”

Pust will most likely issue her report, including findings and recommendations, before May 1.

In the end, the DNR will have the final say. Under an agreement approved by a Ramsey County District Court judge, the agency will choose someone who has had no involvement in Rogers’ case to make the call on whether his permit will be renewed.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.