Do Not Resuscitate. That’s one meaning of the three letters strung together but it also means Department of Natural Resources. Sometimes I feel like I am critical of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in my blog posts and I guess sometimes I am. Maybe it is because I have such strong feelings regarding wildlife and our natural resources in Minnesota. Or maybe it’s because there is so much to be critical about. In either case this is a very interesting story about someone who has been allowed to work very closely with bears and who has charged people for experiencing things with him. Where did the money go? I don’t know, it’s just one of the questions I have about this DNR program.
Ely bear researcher Lynn Rogers gave tips to paying participants in his “bear course” on feeding bears from their mouths, according to sworn testimony and documents discussed Friday.
Among instructions from Rogers’ Wildlife Research Institute read before a judge in St. Paul on Friday was “Tip Number 4: Don’t offer bears food from your lips unless the bear is used to that.”
Lou Cornicelli, who oversees research permitting for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, read the instructions, which were provided to him by a former course participant and Rogers supporter who later became a critic.
Their veracity has not been challenged by Rogers in a fact-finding legal proceeding that has essentially outed his controversial research methods on trial.
After reading the instructions, Cornicelli said: “To me that’s just egregious . … You’re teaching people how to feed a bear from your lips.”
Course instructions also included advice for “reasonable safe hand-feeding” of bears.
“Keep the food coming at a rapid pace, handful after handful,” Cornicelli read. The instructions, from 2011, advised participants to not feed bears one peanut at a time. Cornicelli continued reading from them: “Some bears may bite to tell you to keep the food coming. This might cause a bruise. … It is not an attack.”
After reading the instructions, Cornicelli added, “What’s ‘reasonably safe’?”
Beginning in 2012, Rogers stopped instructing participants to have contact with bears; he prohibits it. His most recent DNR permit doesn’t allow touching of bears by anyone other than a handful of specific people, including Rogers and his associates.
But Friday’s testimony and evidence are at the core of the DNR’s allegations that Rogers’ practices have created a public safety hazard and amounted to entertainment and tourism, not scientific research.
Last year, the DNR refused to renew Rogers’ longstanding research permit, which allowed him to affix radio collars to bears and install video cameras in dens. Rogers has challenged the DNR decision and on Monday, a fact-finding legal proceeding before the state’s chief administrative law judge began.
The procedure is similar to a trial, with state attorneys acting as prosecutors and Rogers’ attorneys acting as defense. Rogers’ side has not yet put on his case.
Rogers has maintained that hand-feeding bears is an essential part of building trust with them, allowing him to walk with wild bears in the woods of his study area between Tower and Ely in northern Minnesota. But the DNR maintains that trust not only acclimates bears to people, but also makes them see people as a source of food. Earlier in the week, several residents of Eagle’s Nest Township testified that they frequently have encounters with bears that approach them and their houses and refuse to leave unless pepper-sprayed.
Biologst Lynn Rogers is pictured checking the heart rate of Jo, a 2-year-old black bear, in September, 2010. Rogers’ request that the DNR prohibit the killing of collared bears was recently denied, sparking outrage from supporters. Photo courtesy of the Wildlife Research Insitute.
On Friday morning, Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s main bear expert, accused Rogers of acting more like a zookeeper than a scientist.
“With food, (Rogers is) conditioning behavior,” said Garshelis, a nationally recognized expert on bears. “In zoos, they do this all the time. They actually train animals.”
Rogers has said the trust he builds with bears allows him not only to affix radio collars without the use of drugs, such as tranquilizers, but also to conduct observations and research that otherwise would be impossible. Under questioning from Rogers’ attorney, Garshelis acknowledged that habituated bears have sometimes allowed scientists to gain insight into bear behavior by following them in the woods, but he disputed that much of Rogers’ work gleans valuable information.
“Real science,” Garshelis said, referring to current DNR research projects, involves implanting heart monitors that record “every heartbeat” along with GPS data about an animal’s location. “Sticking your hand under a bear to get a pulse in front of a crowd of people is a stunt.”
Rogers declined to comment on Friday’s testimony, saying he expects to testify himself, perhaps next week.
People, often not wildlife professionals, pay thousands of dollars for his bear course. They learn bear biology and behavior in classroom settings and venture into the field to observe Rogers and the wild bears he studies. What has emerged in testimony, as well as photos and videos, is that participants feed, pet and pose for photos with bears on the porch of the Wildlife Research Institute’s field station, a house in the woods where participants sleep and eat. In some images, Rogers and others are feeding the bears through windows.
At least two photographs that show mouth-to-mouth feeding, which Rogers critic Jill Lindsey said Rogers called “the bear’s kiss,” have gone public.
Rogers defended the practice, saying it shows that habituated bears aren’t dangerous. He also has said that the wider public “wouldn’t understand” such images, which is why he requested they not be disseminated publicly. It’s unclear to what extent the courses are connected with Rogers’ research. A number of course participants Friday said in social media posts that the two are unrelated. However, the radio collars allow Rogers to quickly locate the bears in the woods, allowing participants an opportunity not only to see a wild bear on a porch, but in its element.
It’s unclear how many people hand- or mouth-fed bears over the years. Earlier in the week, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr suggested it could have been as many as 650 since 2002, a figure apparently based on attendance of Rogers’ courses, which are offered at various times throughout the year.
Cornicelli said when he began receiving reports, images and videos of the activities in the courses several years ago he became deeply concerned.
“I was convinced he was not doing research. Now I’m starting to see all this public safety stuff,” Cornicelli said. “With Ms. Lindsey, she sent us a lot of pictures. But that was one person from one course. They run eight courses a year. … It makes me think, ‘What else is out there?’ It bothers me a lot.”