Dr. Lynn Rogers, volunteer director of the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI), is one of the world’s experts on black bear behavior. And he has shown the world that black bears can be lived with in peace. However, he cautions others severely that his techniques have taken long periods of time to learn to read the animals’ signs.
Rogers, also a photographer and artist of wildlife, began his biological studies over thirty years ago with deer. His approach combines a caring technique from the viewpoint that the animals fear humans.
“It took many years for me to overcome the brain-washing I grew up with about bears. Finally I began to interpret their body language and vocalizations in terms of their fears rather than my fears, and I found that I could build trusting relationships with these intelligent wild animals,” Rogers said.
He started his bear study by tagging along silently with them. Like Dr. Jane Goodall with her Tanzanian chimpanzees, he finally was accepted by the wild bears and could touch them. (Dr. Goodall was one who backed the beginning of the North American Black Bear Center in Ely, MN.)
At the WRI, Rogers built both first- and second-story ledges where he places feed such as seeds, nuts, and acorns, only supplementary food to the bears’ diet. As the bears found the food, Rogers hung around and persuaded them to eat out of a large can.
When he decided to radio-collar certain bears for his study, he chose not to use tranquilizers. Instead he placed the collar above the can so the bear had to nose through the collar to get food. Gradually and with immense patience, Rogers worked the collar in place. He has radio-tracked over a hundred bears in the northeastern Minnesota forests in twenty-two years.
Rogers is the first scientist to take people into a bear’s hibernation den via video camera. This was documented in a one-hour film, two years in the making and narrated by Mark Hamil (Luke Skywalker of “Star Wars”). The film was aired several times on Animal Planet and now may be viewed at the North American Black Bear Center in Ely.
In the dens, Rogers discovered how mothers care for their newborn cubs when temperatures reach far below zero. He showed that black bears don’t only sleep during hibernation. He also learned black bears are a matriarchal society in which the females bequeath territorial parts to their female offspring, and the daughters maintain the territory after the mother’s passing.
Also, Rogers was the first person to draw blood from hibernating bears, which helps scientists understand how hibernating bears remain in good physical condition when they don’t eat, drink, or evacuate body wastes.
Rogers tested capsaicin, the active ingredient in cayenne pepper, on the bears, and now capsaicin is widely used as bear repellant.
The goal of WRI (all volunteer staff) is to help people coexist with the bears in an increasingly urban environment.
“People are moving and living into bear country at an unprecedented rate, and their attitudes will determine the future of bears,” said Rogers. “Sharing factual research information with the public is important because the more people know, the more tolerant they become toward bears.”
The WRI makes its findings known to millions yearly through radio, TV, magazines, books, museum exhibits, courses and the internet (www.bearstudy.org) .
Ely’s North American Bear Center (www.bear.org) provides knowledge of black bears, their role in the ecosystem, and their relationship to humans through exhibits, multi-media presentations, and when prudent, live animals, particularly those needing clinical rehabilitation.
Rogers has a Ph.D. in ecology and behavioral biology from the University of Minnesota. His rewards include the Quality Research Award from the U. S. Forest Service and the Anna M. Jackson Award from the American Society of Mammalogists. He and his wife Donna live in Ely and have three grown daughters.