"Bear Man" Lynn Rogers on Recent Attacks: Don't Fear Bears

Minnesota biologist has unusual approach to studying wild black bears.

A recent spate of bear attacks across the country has many wondering how to deal with bears. Controversial biologist Lynn Rogers has a particularly unusual approach to studying black bears: hand-feeding the animals and spending time with them in the wild to gain their trust. (Related: "Please DO Feed the Bears, Biologist Says.")

Such behaviors have earned Rogers, 74, the founder of both the Wildlife Research Institute and the North American Bear Center (NABC), the nickname "Bear Man." But it's also drawn fire from critics who say he endangers public safety by making the animals less fearful of humans.

The bitter dispute came to a head this summer, when the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) refused to renew Rogers's permit to radio-collar black bears in the state and install webcams in dens.

Rogers responded by suing the DNR, saying that removing radio collars from ten black bears would irreparably harm his research.

The two sides settled on a temporary compromise in late July that let Rogers keep collars on the bears, but bans him from live-streaming video from bear dens over the Internet.

The court case attracted worldwide attention, and even prompted famed primatologist Jane Goodall to weigh in. In a letter sent to Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton earlier this month, Goodall called Rogers's work "one of those rare long-term studies where each successive year makes the whole that much more valuable."

Goodall, who is a member of the International Advisory Board of Rogers's NABC, added that it would be a "scientific tragedy" if his research is closed down.

We talked with Rogers about the recent bear attacks, a close encounter he once had with an angry mother bear, and how Goodall's work with chimpanzees helped shape his own bear research.

Have you heard about the recent bear attacks across the United States?

I saw it on the news, and I thought it was probably a lot of hype. The media doesn't give the background on these things very well. They make a big story out of it and get viewers, but they mischaracterize the bears and misinform the public.

Are you concerned that the hype and misinformation surrounding the recent attacks will negatively impact black bears?

Yes, because the biggest problem bears face is human attitudes ... People won't coexist with an animal they fear.

You've described black bears as being pretty timid, so why do some black bears attack humans?

I think of all behavioral things as falling under bell-shaped curves. You're going to get the odd bear that's way out in the tail of that curve.

Have the recent bear attacks affected how you deal with them in your research?

No, because there are thousands of people across the country who feed bears and are close to bears every day. They know they're not in danger. The safety record shows that. My safety record shows that. I have worked closer and longer with black bears than anybody. And I've never had one come after me and hurt me.

Your very hands-on approach to black bear research is not conventional and is very controversial. How did you come up with it?

I realized there's only so much you can learn by measuring a tranquilized bear and putting dots on a map. (Related video: "Bear-Kissing Guide Seeks Out Intimate Encounters.")

With the old methods—some of which I helped pioneer—you would capture the bear, tranquilize it, put a radio collar on it, and follow it with an airplane.

Because if you want to learn about their habitat use, social organization, language—everything that makes a bear a bear—you have to at least see the animal that you're studying, and it can't be tranquilized. I knew I had to get close, and do more of a Jane Goodall kind of research.

So I don't use tranquilizers anymore. I base my research on trust. I put radio collars on bears using trust. (See bear pictures.)

How does one go about gaining the trust of wild black bears?

We'll throw food at them while getting closer to them. Or we'll lie down so we don't seem like a threat, and when the bears come very close, we touch them. Touch is a universal language. They jump at first and they're defensive, but once you get past that, pretty quickly you can put a radio collar on them without a tranquilizer. (See National Geographic's bear videos.)

When we join a bear for a walk, we'll give it a handful of food to reward it for not running away. That also gives us a chance to measure its heart rate.

You've also come under fire for your ideas about "diversionary feeding." Can you describe what that is?

Everybody knows you can lead bears into trouble with food ... but food can also lead bears out of trouble in certain situations.

The common belief used to be that when you feed bears you create nuisance bears and jeopardize public safety because you make the animals lazy, dependent on humans, and aggressive. But when I searched the literature for the basis of that stuff ... I found there was no science behind it.

So I set out to see if feeding bears would make things worse, as some believed, or if it would draw them away from problem areas and reduce problems.

It worked better than I could have hoped. Throughout the eight-year study, problems were reduced [by] 88 percent. Actually, there was 100 percent success with the bears that found the diversionary feeding site.

The only two problems were two bears on the fringe of the study area that had not yet found the diversionary feeding site. During the study, the region experienced a year [1985] with the scarcest food and highest bear complaint rate on record, but my study area had no problem. It wasn't a bad food year there due to the diversionary feeding.

So the bears didn't become dependent on human food?

No, they prefer natural foods. If it's a good food year, and there are plenty of plump berries and ant pupae in abundance, then the bears just ignore our food stations. There's nothing we can offer them that can compete with a bumper crop of favorite foods.

You say you've never been hurt by a bear, but you did have a close encounter once. Can you describe what happened?

It was in 1984 in Minnesota. I was taking pictures of black bear cubs and they squawked and leaped for the trees, and the mother whirled around and came running after me.

Usually, the mother bears just bluff charge, meaning they come toward you with a lot of bluster, blowing air and slamming their feet down hard with every bound, but they usually stop when they're about 20 feet [6 meters] away. When I see bluster, I feel safe. It means they won't attack. They just want to talk about their anxiety.

But this one just kept coming. I tried to run backwards and I tripped. I was on my back and she was over me. I was looking eyeball-to-eyeball with her, and thinking, 'What's she going to do next?' I couldn't run away, so I decided if she does nothing, I'll do nothing. If she tries to bite, then I'll do everything I can.

But she just decided okay, no danger here. I was at her mercy, and she never touched me. After that I tagged along with the family for the next two hours. Because if she wasn't going to bite me in that extreme situation, when would she ever?

What are you up to now?

I'm studying bears in a community here [in Minnesota] where about a dozen households have been feeding bears since 1961. I don't advocate that people get near bears, but that's what they've been doing here for about 50 years.

This interview has been edited.

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