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Lynn Rogers’ research: DNR shouldn’t use exaggerations to deny permit for groundbreaking researcher

The Timberjay Newspapers
Wednesday, June 25, 2008 Volume 19, Issue 18

The Department of Natural Resources shouldn’t use exaggerated concerns over public safety as an excuse to end decades of path-breaking research on black bears in northeastern Minnesota.

As we report this week, the DNR has threatened to terminate the research permit of Dr. Lynn Rogers as of June 30, unless a panel of experts the agency plans to convene finds that Rogers’ research poses no threat to the public.

Sadly, top DNR officials have weighed in prematurely on that issue. In a Jan. 31 letter to Rogers, Fish and Wildlife Division Director Dave Schad makes clear he’s found Rogers guilty even before the expert panel has been convened. Writes Schad: “your actions and recommendations are creating potential for public safety problems as well as jeopardizing the safety of the bears themselves.”

Sounds like case closed, which leads us to wonder if the expert panel is being formed to provide an objective assessment or simply political cover for a decision that DNR officials almost certainly know will be unpopular with the public.

The DNR has tangled with Rogers in the past and has regularly come out on the losing end of public opinion, often with good reason. Just as the agency shouldn’t play favorites in the decisions it makes in other contexts, neither can it allow personal animosities or professional rivalries to factor into decisions on who can and who can not conduct scientific research in Minnesota.

Rogers is clearly qualified to do the research that has occupied his professional life for more than 40 years. No one in the DNR can dispute that. His groundbreaking approach, which allows him to work at close proximity to wild bears, has without question greatly expanded our scientific understanding of bear behavior. His work has brought substantial public attention to bear conservation issues as well as to our region.

That public attention has made Rogers’ research a positive thing for bears, and for our area’s tourist economy. Rogers’ was instrumental in development of the North American Bear Center (which is expected to attract 50,000 visitors to the area this year) and his research forms the basis of the center’s public outreach materials. Rogers’ work has been subject of major documentaries in the past, and a new project by the BBC, which is being filmed in the Ely area over the next several months, will be broadcast to over 150 million people worldwide as part of the BBC’s award-winning Planet Earth series.

Given Rogers’ credentials and popularity with the public at large, it makes neither scientific, political, nor economic sense to put an untimely end to his work.

The DNR’s concerns over public safety are overblown. The truth is, the agency has no data whatsoever that suggests, much less proves, that Rogers’ research is responsible for any nuisance activities or bear habituation in Eagles Nest Township, where his work is based.

Rogers located his studies in the Eagles Nest area because residents in the township had been feeding bears there for years and Rogers was interested to determine whether such feeding made a difference in bear behavior. The DNR claims that Rogers’ is habituating bears, but many of the township’s bear were habituated to humans long before Rogers began his research there about ten years ago.

Rogers was particularly interested to learn whether the “diversionary” feeding of bears in the township could be a method of reducing nuisance activity by bears— and his work suggests that it just might be. Such a finding, of course, would be directly at odds with official DNR policy on the subject, which doesn’t help Rogers’ standing with the agency.

But that shouldn’t matter. The DNR is charged with issuing permits for wildlife research, but it shouldn’t abuse that authority by denying permits to qualified scientists simply because they find their hypotheses inconvenient. Science needs to be an open process— not one constrained by conventional wisdom or battles over turf.

The DNR should quit persecuting Rogers and let him study his bears in peace.

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