Ursus Controversius: The Battle Over Bear Science

Part I : Fear and Loathing in the North Woods

There is a saying among biologists and outdoorsmen who live in bruin country: Bears are where they find you.  Now, that bit of wisdom can either be interpreted as a mildly funny joke or a vague threat, but it speaks to a long-standing reality in game management.  Grizzlies and black bears have proven difficult to study and quantify, despite their omnipresence across large swathes of North America.  Estimates on the black bear population range from 750,000 to over 1 million, and no one can quite get a handle on the endangered grizzlies, either—the federal government says 718 reside in Yellowstone National Park alone, but a study published in late June suggests that flawed methodology could be overcounting them by a wide margin.

A bear in the forest is a proper matter for speculation; a bear in the zoo is a proper matter for public curiosity; a bear in your wife’s bed is a matter of the gravest concern.  – Winston Churchill

Bears certainly do not engender the same irrational hatred as their fellow apex predator, the gray wolf.  But surveys show that the public continues to fear bruin attacks more than statistics warrant (an attitude likely egged on by survival-themed reality TV).  A 2011 paper found that bears have only killed 63 people in North America over the past 110 years, and just 17 of those have come since the year 2000.  Sharks, lightning bolts, and Africanized honeybees all pose a greater risk to the average person’s wellbeing.  (Humans, on the other hand, kill plenty of bears—28 states offer hunting seasons).

Count Lynn Rogers among those unafraid.  Over the past forty years, Rogers has made a controversial name for himself by radio collaring and hand-feeding bruins in Minnesota’s north woods.  Like Timothy Treadwell (the ill-fated “Grizzly Man” in Alaska), Rogers, 74, is known for walking alongside black bears, feeding them from his hand, and placing cameras inside dens.  Photos on his website show him sitting next to 500-lb behemoths as casually as you might cuddle up to a Golden Retriever.  Such up-close-and-personal encounters delight Rogers’s 140,000+ Facebook followers, as well as an international fan club born from multiple appearances on Animal Planet and the BBC.   Rogers also presides over the Wildlife Research Institute, a non-profit organization with a million-dollar compound in Ely, Minnesota.

Rogers has fashioned himself first and foremost as a public educator, arguing that his unconventional methods allow him to study bear behavior in greater detail than most.  But his research does not sit well with everyone.  Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) warns that Rogers is creating a long-term public safety hazard by habituating local black bears to humans and encouraging the animals to associate humans with food.  In a letter dated December 21, 2012, the DNR expressed concern about the lack of scientific publications resulting from the research and the undue burden on the public to tolerate bears that are emboldened around humans.

The DNR’s position reflects a broad consensus among wildlife biologists:  Although bears are perhaps not as ferocious as advertised, they are still wild animals and prone to occasional unpredictable attacks.  National statistics are difficult to compile, but based on a sampling of state and national park data, it’s safe to say that there are hundreds of close encounters each year. Black bears are driven by food and often have no fear of entering populated areas; they will break into cabins, forage in campgrounds, and even steal the occasional dumpster.  Rogers argues that diversionary food sources—set up at the outskirts of populated areas—would help divert bear activity appropriately.

Tensions between Rogers and the DNR have been building for a decade, but flared in 2011 when a DNR warden shot one of Rogers’s collared bears when the animal refused to vacate an area where children were present.  In late 2012, the DNR imposed new restrictions on Rogers’s research permits and warned him about complaints that Wildlife Research Institute employees were harassing bear hunters (Rogers denies this accusation). Then, on June 5, 2013, a black bear attacked a woman in northern Minnesota, forcing officers to kill the animal.  Although officials did not draw a direct link between the incident and Rogers’s studies, it appeared to hasten the DNR’s decision.   On June 28, the DNR wrote Rogers revoking his bear research permits entirely.  Rogers dismissed the DNR’s allegations as unfounded, vowing to fight the notion that his research is in any way harmful.

The dispute is headed for court, where Rogers pursued (and won) a temporary reprieve on July 29 that will allow him to continue tracking the 50 or so bears that he has already fixed with radio collars.  Meanwhile, his appeal will work its way through the state courts, a process that may take between 6 and 9 months.  The Wildlife Research Institute has put out an all-call for donations to offset legal fees; as of this writing, supporters have chipped in more than $47,000.

All of this begs the question:  Is Rogers’s work doing more harm than good?  Is his research providing scientific data that could not be acquired by other means?  It does not appear to in the the traditional sense: The DNR’s claim about Rogers’s lack of publication appears to be true.  I could find only three peer-reviewed articles published since 2011.  But bear encounter statistics from Ely show no discernible pattern or rise over the past 5 years, lending at least some credence to Roger’s claim that his research is not directly correlated to attacks.  Does Rogers’s work have Jane Goodall-like educational value (even though Goodall herself has repudiated some of her earlier methods) or is it reckless and dangerous?  The truth is murky and complicated.  After all, how does one ensure valid, objective study of a dangerous animal when pitted against dangerous whims of public sentiment?   This is a debate that’s playing out on a national level right now, and these are just some of the questions I’ll attempt to tackle in more detail in the next few days.

Coming Monday: Who’s Counting? – A deeper dive into the history and methodology of bear research.

Trent Knoss’s writing has appeared in M.I.T. Technology Review and Backpacker Magazine.  He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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