Points North: Seeing Both Sides Of The Ely Bear Debate

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 It’s not often you encounter a wild animal wearing a radio collar. It’s only happened once to me. On a county road near Ely a couple of years ago I saw a whitetail doe wearing a collar. Seeing the deer was a surprise, but its location was not. Ely has been a center of wildlife research for many decades.

 
In many ways, Ely is well suited to wildlife research. It is the largest town within northeastern Minnesota’s boreal forest and is surrounded by the Superior National Forest, including the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, as well as state and county public forests. The U.S. Forest Service has aircraft there, as well as a research station. Minus woodland caribou, Ely is one of the only places in the Lower 48 with the full complement of boreal forest wildlife. Wolves, moose, lynx, pine marten, fisher and many other northern species are found there. And so biologists come to Ely to study them.
 
For decades, wildlife research originating in Ely has made the news. Men such as Sigurd Olson, Milt Stenlund, L. David Mech and Lynn Rogers gained worldwide recognition for their wildlife studies near Ely. While much of their renown came from their work, it was also due to the public fascination with their research subjects—wolves and bears.
 
In this era of increasingly sophisticated and invasive technology, at any given time dozens of wild critters in northern Minnesota are wearing radio collars so biologists can track their whereabouts and gather information about their day-to-day lives. For scientists, this is invaluable data for learning more about animals difficult to observe in their natural habitat. As an example, in recent years we’ve learned much about Minnesota’s moose and lynx through studies of radio-collared animals.
 
Because American wildlife belongs to no one, researchers have no ownership of the wild animals wearing their collars. This means the animals are not protected from lawful hunting or trapping. In fact, most wildlife studies factor human-caused mortality, including hunting, into the research. Usually we don’t even hear about it when a Minnesota hunter kills a radio-collared moose, deer or other critter. And even if we did learn that a hunter killed a research animal, public outcry is unlikely.
 
But if the dead radio-collared animal is a wolf or bear, we may read about it on the front page. That’s what happened recently when one of Lynn Rogers’ research bears near Ely was killed by a hunter. The bear, known as Sarah, was a celebrity among the many followers of Rogers’ research project on the North American Bear Center’s website. Judging from the outcry in cyberspace, the shot that killed Sarah was heard ‘round the world.
 
For several days, the bear’s story was a media obsession, even becoming a political cause as state legislators offered to pass a law protecting radio-collared bears. Depending upon your perspective, the uproar over the bear was either overblown or fully justified. And both of these opposing views may be correct.
 
Within the larger context of wildlife management, the bear’s death was not illegal and had no lasting effect on the survival of the species or bear research. Within that context, the public concern about the bear’s death is largely emotional and driven by the fact the bear had a name and a website. By contrast, thousands of anonymous bears are killed by Minnesota hunters every year without much more press coverage than an annual harvest statistic.
 
On the other hand, Rogers, who is adept at marketing, drew worldwide public interest to Minnesota bears last winter when he set up a video camera in a bear den and recorded the birth of a cub. The mother bear, named Lily, and the cub, named Hope, became furry celebrities as Internet viewers followed the birth and subsequent activities of the pair. Their story became a media melodrama when mother and cub separated in early summer, which in turn led to wider interest in Rogers’ research project.
 
Rogers is no stranger to the media. He’s been the focus of numerous media reports—favorable and unfavorable—since at least the 1980s. While his research methods are unorthodox and include the questionable practice of artificial feeding for free-ranging wildlife, there is no doubt his name has become synonymous with black bears. His projects are featured on televised nature programs here and abroad.
 
While critics of Rogers’ work are many within the scientific community, it is hard to deny that thousands of people worldwide have learned about black bears through his well-publicized work. Rogers’ audience is not necessarily a traditional one for wildlife and includes many people who many never see a black bear, as well as those who live in bear country but know little about bears. Through Rogers, these folks learn not to fear black bears and develop an interest in northern wildlife. Is there anything wrong with that?
 
Another aspect of Rogers’ work that certainly shouldn’t go unnoticed is that he has harnessed the power of the Internet to create a huge publicity machine for the Bear Center and Ely. Recently, little-known Bear Head State Park won $100,000 for site improvements when Bear Center website followers voted en masse in an online contest to choose America’s most popular park. While an earlier generation learned of Ely through the wolf research of L. David Mech or the wilderness writings of Sigurd Olson, today many are discovering this tourist Mecca through Lily, Hope, Sarah and other black bears Rogers has brought to the Internet.
 
While the North American Bear Center’s website is currently calling for a ban on hunting bears radio-collared by Rogers and his cohorts, this controversy is unlikely to have broader implications for bear hunting. By and large, Minnesota bear hunting occurs with little fanfare. The state has a large, healthy black bear population. Most folks living within bear country are aware hunting helps reduce human/bear conflicts resulting when hungry bears seek food at dwellings or agricultural operations where they are not welcome. And striking a balance that allows bears and people to coexist is best for all.
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