Meet the Jane Goodall of bears

Dr. Lynn Rogers has spent years proving it’s safe to get up close and personal with wild black bears

Published September 17, 2017 5:29PM (EDT)


This article originally appeared on Narratively.

"Hi, bear. It’s me, bear,” Dr. Lynn Rogers says as he approaches a 350-pound wild black bear that he’s named Burt. Rogers’ palm is upward near his ear, like a waiter balancing a tray of food high above the heads of diners. Except instead of a tray, Rogers’ palm holds a single peanut.

“Up,” he says to the bear, and beast rises so he’s balancing on his hind legs. The bear is a few inches taller than Rogers, who stands over six feet, and much broader. Burt’s long pink tongue darts from his mouth and he grabs the peanut from Rogers’ hand with his tongue’s underside. He crunches once and the shell, now in two pieces, comes spitting out both sides of his mouth and lands on the wooden porch. Rogers says to his class of seven students, who have assembled at a three-story cabin in the woods in the northernmost reaches of Minnesota, just miles from the Canadian border, “Bears have a spot on the underside of their tongues that they use to pick up food. They only pick up one or two berries or nuts or ants at a time.”

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From a bag, Rogers scoops more peanuts into his hand as Burt attentively waits. The big bear is surprisingly gentle, and he seems content to stand erect next to Rogers and eat nuts while the class members’ cameras click taking his photo. Burt keeps an ear and eye attuned to the nearby woods for other approaching bears, but he seems alternately apathetic to and engaged with the humans.

Rogers, 78, also known as “The Bear Man,” of the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely, Minnesota, is a legend among bear biologists and bear lovers. Like many legends, his reputation is polarizing: lovable advocate willing to go against the grain of traditional thought, or reckless outlaw. The truth lies somewhere in between. He’s a charismatic black bear evangelist who, after living and working with Ursus americanus for more than 50 years, preaches tolerance and protection for a mammal that is — according to him — the subject of erroneous myths, like that it has sharp incisors, craves human flesh and is always poised for attack.

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This is Rogers’ first bear course of seven or eight he’ll hold in 2017. The seven students have gathered from five states and England. All but two are retired. Two nurses, a university librarian, two entrepreneurs and writers, an accountant and a lawyer/foreign service officer. What unites them is their interest in learning more about bears, and in this endeavor, they are not disappointed. Michael, the retired librarian, says, “I told my wife I’d be happy if I got to see just one bear.” Fifteen minutes after he arrives at the cabin, he stands next to Burt as his classmates snap photos to send to his wife who had given him the $2,500 course as a gift.

For four days, the students help Rogers and Mike Johnson (Rogers’ research assistant with the title of Scat Relocation Specialist) weigh, take vital signs, and make research notes for more than a dozen bears. They also listen to lectures, both formally and informally, over three meals per day. And only on one afternoon, when a big bear lumbers from the woods, snorts and stomps a front foot on the ground, does there seem like the possibility of danger. “Get in the house,” Johnson instructs. The class rushes into the cabin and peers at the newcomer through the living room bay windows. R.C., the new arrival, takes a stomping step towards Burt, who is lying on the porch eating peanuts from an overturned metal garbage can lid. A chipmunk dines with him. Burt snorts at her but keeps right on eating.

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“R.C. isn’t the friendliest of bears,” Johnson explains, “so Lynn doesn’t want people around her just in case. But she’s O.K. with me.” To prove his point, he exits the cabin with a bag of hazelnuts, her favorites. “Hi, bear. It’s me, bear. Want some nuts? It’s O.K., bear. It’s me.” He approaches her with an outstretched hand of hazelnuts. She is tentative at first, but her shoulders and neck muscles unclench just a smidge when she recognizes Johnson. And one by one she tongues the nuts like a lizard snatching bugs.

The accepted wisdom among wildlife management agencies is that feeding bears makes them more dangerous to humans because they lose their fear of humans and may become dependent on human food. But three months before this course, a six-year Colorado Parks and Wildlife black bear study reported results that challenge that core assumption and others about black bears. The results included the conclusions that bears who eat human food do not become addicted to it, and that the increasing number of bear and human interactions does not mean that the bear population is growing, but that “bears are adapting to take advantage of urban expansion,” according to Denver Post reporters who went along a recent CPW visit to monitor the bears. (Colorado has a two-strikes’ policy regarding nuisance bears and their euthanizing.) The study also reported that the rising temperatures due to climate change shorten hibernation duration, thus increasing the possibility of bear-human interactions.

None of this is really news to Rogers, but more affirmation of the sermon he’s been preaching through his book, "The Great American Bear," and in his 137 scientific peer-reviewed journal papers over his 50-year career. But his methods of interacting with bears has frightened and angered his local wildlife management agencies, with whom he used to work, and has resulted in a lawsuit to get him to stop his research.

His community of Eagles Nest Township has been feeding bears for more than 30 years, typically with very few reported bear nuisance problems (like overturned garbage cans or bear home-invasion) and negative human-bear encounters. Earlier in his career, after using traditional methods of darting bears to apply tracking collars, Rogers decided that establishing a “mutual trust relationship” with bears helped humans study them and understand them better. “I wanted to do what Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were doing,” he says. (Goodall spent her career living amongst and studying chimpanzees in Tanzania and Kenya, and Fossey did the same with mountain gorillas in Rwanda.) So he spent years learning how to gain a bear’s trust, and to attach radio collars by talking to the bears and getting them to allow him to put on the collar (no tranquilizers or any sedation methods necessary), which frightened some of his co-workers, but ended up making him the subject of several documentaries, including the BBC-produced “Bearwalker of the Northwoods.”

But feeding bears is one of the bones of contention between Rogers and his local wildlife management folks and one of the reasons Rogers lost his research permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which claimed, “Dr. Rogers’ study activities has significantly contributed to bona fide public safety concerns.” Rogers’ methods of research, funding from organizations such as the National Rifle Association’s Conservation Division and other non-traditional sources, plus the publicity, has made him the subject of scrutiny and lawsuits, including one involving the DNR. The judge in the DNR case stated that the bears in and around Eagles Nest have exhibited unbearlike behaviors: “failing to startle when confronted with loud and unexpected noises; learning to climb human-constructed stairs in purposeful efforts to locate food; closely approaching young children; remaining on human-occupied property in spite of hazing activities that would typically cause a bear to retreat; standing up and pawing at cabin and car windows; and nipping and slapping at people unable to provide them with expected food.” And this behavior was making people afraid.

“It takes two things to make a complaint,” Rogers says, “what a bear does and how a person feels about it. Most people are afraid of what a bear is going to do instead of what a bear actually ends up doing.” And most bears ended up doing very little except running away when they encountered humans.

But observed bear behavior can change, according to Rogers and the researchers in Colorado, especially in times of food scarcity, and climate change has been affecting length of hibernation and food prevalence. During one of course’s first lectures, titled “Can Food Lead Bears Out of Trouble?” Rogers said he started studying bears in 1965 when they “had varmint status, like a rat.” And he admitted to being afraid of bears when he first started, as he had grown up being told how dangerous they were. “People would gut shoot them and it would take months for them to die this way.” He shakes his head and the sadness is evident in his watery eyes. “Nuisance behavior is not because bears get habituated or food-conditioned, it’s because of hunger,” he said. “All data say that black bears become less likely to attack when they lose their fear of people.”

On the course’s last day, the Denver Post reports that at least seven black bears in Colorado were killed that week, one for biting a staff camper, one for coming too close to a yard where children played, and one because it allegedly killed a chicken. All of these black bear killings sadden Rogers. When CNN calls and wants a Skype video interview to get his take on the situation, he sounds frustrated, telling the class that it probably doesn’t matter what he says to the media since most people buy into the myths that bears are to be feared.

Despite recent media coverage, black bears are rarely a threat or fatal to humans. A study of black bear-human encounters from 1900-2009 by the University of Calgary found that black bears have killed only 63 people in 59 incidents. Male black bears were responsible for 92 percent of these human fatalities and in at least 38 percent of the cases it was over food. Other studies have found that often where there are the largest populations of black bears, there are the least amountof human killings. Black bears only become defensive if they are terrified, and rarely do black bear sows with cubs act aggressive to humans.

“That’s grizzly bears,” Rogers says, before quipping: “Black bears usually run first, ask questions later.” Black bear cubs climb trees when they are frightened, which the class saw happen half-a-dozen times over those four days. For example, when a yearling got too close to a sow and her cubs in an Eagles Nest couple’s backyard, the cubs scampered more than a hundred feet up nearby trees to safety, while their mom snorted and stomped and ran off after the other bear. The sow, however, ignored the nine humans in the yard, clearly not seeing them as a threat. Black bears’ short claws are inset on their paws (don’t hang over the ends like our nails), which make them perfect for climbing trees. But they aren’t sharp or long to be used against prey. He explains that black bears climb trees like humans do, straight up and then feet first on the way down. Unlike squirrels and chipmunks, bear hip joints don’t reverse. Black bears are arguably the most human-like of the native North American mammals.

A mama bear will swat at her youngsters or at a human if she thinks it is exhibiting bad manners, or a younger bear may swat or put its mouth on another bear or human in play. “The rule of bear play is that you don’t bite hard,” Rogers says, and in 50 years of working with bears, he’s never had a bite that has broken skin. Kristie, a former Middle East photojournalist-turned-entrepreneur, and one of the students in the course, learns about bear play firsthand when one of the bears is on the stairs and she walks near her. The bear swats once before scampering up the stairs like she has initiated a game of chase that Kristie isn’t playing. Instead, she gives the bear wide berth, but she is quick enough to capture with her camera the fleeing bear.

One afternoon, during Rogers’ nap, Johnson and the students trek through woods during a downpour to visit bear dens that resemble rocky caves, and they battle mosquitos and black flies. They meet locals of Eagles Nest Township who keep the bear feeders on their properties stocked with trail mix, Rice Krispy bars, berries and nuts. They watch the bears pick out what they like from the feeders while leaving the stuff they don’t. One remarkable 300-plus-pound male prefers green M&Ms to red, yellow, orange or brown, launching a conversation with Johnson about animals and colorblindness, as this bear can obviously see colors.

On another afternoon, the class watches and laughs at Burt standing on his hind legs next to a platform. He rests his front paws on it and peers at the students like he is trying to summon a beer from a bartender. They pose for photos with One-Eyed Jack, a bear who has seen and survived many seasons, both hunting and mating.

And as the class sadly draws to a close, the North Carolina nurse who has taken this course nine times in 17 years, tells everyone, “Tomorrow you will wake up and wish you were with the bears. It’s addictive.” She’s clearly sad to be leaving the Ely woods once again.

The last two hours of the course are devoted to touring the North American Bear Center in Ely. The students watch Dr. Rogers touch tongues with a resident bear who can no longer live in the wild due to an injury. Rogers has known this bear since he was a cub, and touching tongues is how bears develop scent memories. As the moments draw to a close and they need to catch flights, they hug each other and Johnson and Rogers, and promise to share photos and keep in touch. A few of the classmates express concern to each other about the future of the Wildlife Research Institute and the North American Bear Center, both of which have relied so much on the charisma and research of Rogers. But mostly, they express worry about the welfare of mama bears and their cubs since the Trump administration has ordered a federal review of the Department of the Interior’s ban on hunting them. And, because experiencing the bears this way in their natural habitat can be a conversion experience, they all promise to themselves to preach the truth about black bears to anyone who will listen.

By Jill L. Ferguson

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