How bear expert Lynn Rogers went from scientific pioneer to pariah

The renowned biologist is in the midst of a stand-off with the DNR

How bear expert Lynn Rogers went from scientific pioneer to pariah

UPDATE: Lynn Rogers lost his battle with the DNR in September 2014 when they declined to renew his permits to put cameras in bear dens and radio collars on the animals.

The Northwoods Research Center sits at the end of a long, gravel path, lined by a backdrop of white pine ascending to the sky.

Tall grass climbs the vinyl siding of the three-story building, which is covered in spider webs and mosquitoes. At the center of it all is a 400-pound black bear, licking its chops and waiting patiently on the front porch like an overgrown dog.

Naomi Lees-Maiberg
Lynn Rogers checks the vital signs of a black bear near the Northwoods Research Center
Lynn Rogers checks the vital signs of a black bear near the Northwoods Research Center

Biologist Lynn Rogers bursts through the front door, smile on his face and bag of hazelnuts in hand, ready to satiate the massive animal. Soon, more bears arrive. But Rogers has his eyes set on one: the giant known as Big Harry.

Rogers and Harry engage in a kind of dance. He lures it in with a few hazelnuts. The creature is reticent at first. But when it realizes its reward, it walks gently toward Rogers, focused, never looking at the man's leathery face.

"Come on, bear," he calls out in a rough growl. "Stand up. All the way, bear."

Harry raises his paws and stands on his hind legs. It's only like this, seeing him tower over the humans around him, that one can truly appreciate the size and power of the beast. The bear grabs the nuts from Rogers's hand, scooping them tenderly with its tongue. Rogers plucks a comb from his pocket, strokes the bear's back, and laughs.

His command of the giant is impressive. You'd swear he could tell it to sit or stay and it would obey. There's an animal instinct at play here, a pure empathy.

"I think [Rogers] probably has a better gut understanding of black bear behavior — of how they communicate — in ways that other people just can't," says Roger Powell, a bear biologist at North Carolina State. "Man, I wish I could understand bears the way he does."

Yet this isn't some sideshow act. It's Rogers's way of showing people that these animals aren't to be feared. His methods are certainly unusual, but so is Rogers.

No biology textbook will tell you to feed a bear by hand or follow it through the woods for up to 24 hours a day. These are techniques years in development, built by going against what the world told him and sticking with his gut.

It's this very stubbornness and desire to part ways with status-quo science that's turned Rogers into a tainted figure, transforming him from one of the most influential bear biologists in history to a pariah of the state.

EVEN WHEN ROGERS IS AWAY FROM bears, his mind never strays too far. His speech is littered with anecdotes about the one he saved, the one hit by a car, the one that recently gave birth. His stories begin in one place and then careen elsewhere. There's just so much to say and only so much time.

But when the subject turns to his fight with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Rogers's eyes narrow. His voice, normally a low growl, sharpens with anger.

"They just want to get rid of you," he says. "And they'll build a case — any case — to do that."

Before the controversy, before the hand feeding, the radical techniques, and the residents of Eagles Nest, Minnesota, turning against him, Rogers was just a student. He spent the summer of 1968 moving nuisance bears from one place to the next in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The job was monotonous. Get a call. Drive. Tranquilize. Move bear. Repeat.

Then he met Albert Erickson, a University of Minnesota professor and early bear expert. Rogers never left his side, pestering Erickson with question after question. What do bears do when they're not causing a nuisance? Where do they live? How do they move?

"And he said, 'Nobody knows the answers to those questions. Nobody's studied those,'" Rogers says. "'But you can help me answer them.' And he invited me to be his graduate student."

Erickson was one of the first biologists to capture bears and tag them. Through him, Rogers was able to use radio telemetry, a new technique employing GPS collars to track a bear's movement. Rogers used these techniques to follow them from birth through death, studying where they went for food, how they hibernated and reproduced. By the time he published his graduate thesis in 1978, Rogers was beginning to answer those questions. At the time, bears were mostly studied when caught, not in the wild. He was beginning to show the world their never-before-seen life.

"What that research does, and what my research did and what his did, is generate more questions than answers," says John Beecham, a retired bear biologist from Idaho. "All of these studies from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s are just built on that early work."

Back then, the public approach to bears, likely initiated by a bureaucrat somewhere, wasn't really working. Wildlife officials would tag them and remove them from campgrounds and neighborhoods, only to see them return.

Next Page »