In Ely bear researcher’s ‘trial,’ DNR chief says public safety at risk
ST. PAUL -- The “trial” of northern Minnesota bear researcher Lynn Rogers’ controversial methods began Monday with starkly different views of the man and the state agency cracking down on him.
In testimony before an administrative law judge in St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources painted Rogers as an “unprofessional” researcher who created a public safety risk by training wild bears to see people as a source of food for “entertainment,” not legitimate research.
On the other side, Rogers, through his attorneys, painted the DNR as an agency bent on tearing him down as retribution for prior disagreements. And, they argued, Rogers doesn’t need the DNR’s permission to put radio collars on bears or install video cameras in their dens.
Last year, the DNR declined to renew Rogers’ long-standing permit, alleging Rogers, his staff and volunteers at the Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center near Ely created a public safety hazard by feeding bears from their hands — and mouths.
Rogers disputes that — though that crucial debate wasn’t fully detailed in court Monday and will likely take days to examine.
Following denial of his permit renewal application, Rogers sued in Ramsey County District Court. That case was settled with an agreement to proceed before an administrative law judge.
In the meantime, Rogers was allowed to maintain a number of collars on wild black bears — eight remain — but was ordered to cease Internet broadcasting his popular “den cams,” which brought international interest to several bears, as well as Rogers and his organizations.
That administrative process began its climax Monday before Chief Administrative Law Judge Tammy Pust.
Much of the day featured DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr on the witness stand.
Landwehr explained his concerns as Assistant Attorney General Dave Iverson presented photographs and videos of Rogers and others interacting with bears in ways that other wildlife managers and biologists have criticized. The most eyebrow-raising images involved Rogers offering a radio-collared bear food from his mouth; Rogers assisting a teenage boy doing the same; and Rogers striking at a bear that was feeding from a muffin tin within a few feet of him. In previous interviews, Rogers said the mouth-to-mouth feedings aren’t a practice he wants to promote and “make us look foolish.” In the video of him swatting at the bear, he immediately expresses regret, saying “I should have been a nice guy.”
Iverson played a video that shows a man feeding a small bear on the porch of a Wildlife Research Center cabin. As someone chuckles off-camera, for more than a minute, the man moves around the porch in a pattern that Landwehr described as “dancing” with a bear.
“I can envision a child with a bag of Fritos,” Landwehr said after the video played, explaining how he believed such behavior could lead to injuries in a campground. “This was not about research. This was entertainment.”
Landwehr acknowledged that feeding bears — even mouth-to-mouth — isn’t illegal in Minnesota, but he said because his signature was on Rogers’ permit, he would personally feel responsible if anyone were harmed by a bear fed and habituated by Rogers.
Landwehr also responded to questions from Rogers’ attorney, David Marshall, that he clamped down on Rogers as retribution for Rogers’ support of a failed attempt in the Legislature to make it illegal to shoot radio-collared bears — an allegation Landwehr denied.
In opening remarks, Marshall laid the foundation for an argument that Landwehr and others in the DNR sought to, using Landwehr’s words from an e-mail he sent to a Rogers critic, “build a case” against Rogers at the expense of the truth. He said Landwehr and other DNR officials frequently overstated the numbers of complaints emanating from Eagle’s Nest Township, the area between Tower and Ely where Rogers focuses his research.
“Shockingly, the DNR will admit that its field staff in the Eagle’s Nest area made up complaints,” Marshall said, highlighting a document on an overhead projector that appeared to show a DNR official acknowledging to a resident that a complaint had incorrectly been entered in the resident’s name. The DNR didn’t directly address this allegation Monday.
Marshall also made it clear he might go after the credibility of Dave Garshelis, the DNR’s primary bear expert and a nationally recognized authority on black bears. Marshall said Garshelis harbors a long-standing resentment toward Rogers. Neither the DNR nor Garshelis responded to that directly in Monday’s proceedings, and Garshelis, whose disagreement with Rogers’ methods are widely knows, declined to comment Monday. He is expected to testify at some point.
With dozens of potential witnesses and hundreds of exhibits — more than 800 for the DNR — it could last more than a week.
At the beginning of Monday’s proceeding, Pust explained that at the conclusion, she will issue a report.
However, the final decision — on whether the DNR was justified in failing to renew Rogers’ permit — will rest with the DNR. The agency has stated it will appoint a DNR official not affiliated with the controversy to make the final call.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.