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BLACK BEARS, CONTESTS, WEBCAMS, AND THE BEAR MAN
lived together at a Bear Center near Ely, which was created by a Bear Man named Lynn Rogers....
No, it’s not a fairy tale. But it might be a fairy tale-come-true for an Ely-area resident who has been studying bears for more than 40 years.
Some people say Lynn Rogers is a controversial guy. He has a PhD and calls himself a scientist, yet his research is a bit “unorthodox” by most standards. He talks to bears, walks with bears, feeds bears, takes photos and films bears, puts collars on bears by hand - without tranquilizing them. He gives them names, similar to how some people name their pets.
He has even filmed a bear’s live birth in the wild in its own den and put the film on the Internet for all the world to see.
Is this man loony or does he really know something about wild bears that we don’t know?
Having grown up in northern Minnesota, I’ve heard plenty of bear stories – mostly the camping story kind, not “Three Bears Fairy Tales.”
Bears have invaded camping sites I’ve stayed at. I have a bent-up aluminum coffee pot that I banged on to show for it. I remember watching a bear swimming across the lake toward a campsite where we were staying in the Boundary Waters, remember seeing “bear lockers” at a Federal campsite up on Lake Kabetogama – a safe place to stash your food in case there were bears nearby. I remember hearing a bear snuffl ing around our tent in the middle of the night at a campsite near Elephant Lake (my yellow Labrador retriever chased it away – whew!).
I remember watching bears at garbage dumps when I was a kid. (Remember garbage dumps? Those stinky places where you hauled your garbage and even shot at rats with a 22 rifle. Ah – the good old days before there were “sanitary landfills”!)
What I heard then were mostly black bear stories.
Later in life there were other stories. First-person stories I heard from Minnesota guys who went to Alaska to fish for salmon at a place called American Creek. But the bears there were different. They were grizzly bears. All I knew was: You didn’t mess with grizzlies. No way. No banging pots and pans to scare them away. The fishermen were told to bury anything that smelled of fish scent, all scraps, fish entrails, etc. During the night, a bear batted around their rubber kayak - their transportation. Shredded it.
My former husband talked to a bush pilot with a horribly scarred face, evidence of a grizzly attack, he was told. Guns were not permitted in that area, but the pilot showed him a 357 magnum pistol that he carried, despite the laws.
That’s where Lynn Rogers comes in. Black bears are not the same animal as grizzly bears. Or brown bears. Or polar bears, for that matter. Lynn Rogers knows that. The above-named larger bears may not be the same species, or live anywhere near the same areas of North America, but the overall “Fear Of All Bears” that has been perpetuated over the years is a perception that many humans seem to hang onto.
That perception is what Lynn Rogers is attempting to change, he says. By educating people. By showing them - through films. Photographs. By having people watch bears. At his Bear Center. In the wild. On the Internet.
“Vicious” black bears living in northeast Minnesota and, in particular the Ely, Minnesota area, is a myth, Lynn Rogers says.
About five years ago I found myself wondering if these black bears that Lynn Rogers befriended were “safe” to be around.
My home at Eagles Nest Lake happens to be located across the lake from Lynn Roger’s home. My place is close to a channel in between two lakes – a popular crossing spot for animals such as deer,moose, beavers, and - of course - bears.
One of the first articles I wrote for Hometown Focus, in fact, was about an encounter with black bears. It was about three years ago. My friend Jimmy had been sitting in a lawn chair near the shore, reading a book, when he looked up to see a black bear with her two cubs just a few feet away, walking through the property. His dogs went crazy. Judging from Jimmy’s reaction, he almost did, too.
OK, I plead guilty. I had baited the bears. I didn’t do it on purpose. It was sunflower seeds in bird feeders that had attracted the bears. But I - and a lot of other people at Eagles Nest Lakes, it turns out, had to learn what to do about the bears.
There was quite a hubbub about the bear sightings at that time. Some people became alarmed. They called their neighbors, called the DNR, called for a township meeting.
As it turns out, there was a town meeting. People were told to get some pepper spray to keep bears away, to put away their garbage, dog food, bird feeders, sunflower seeds, anything that might attract the bears. Some people were mad. Others were thrilled to see real, wild bears. Some threatened to move. Some started feeding the bears. Many were curious. Some were angry at Lynn Rogers for “befriending” wild animals that “should not be tamed.”
Who was this Lynn Rogers guy, anyway?
I remembered reading about him. There had been articles about conflicts between Rogers and the DNR. When I moved out to the lake, I encountered Lynn in my yard one day, holding on to an electronic gizmo and pointing it in all directions. He seemed startled when I said hello. He was merely “tracking” a bear that had disappeared, he said.
Later, I read in the newspapers that one of his research bears had attempted to make a den to hibernate under someone’s cabin right down the road from me. Removing the bear became a “big deal” in the news. The DNR was called to remove the bear. To some people’s dismay, the bear died after being captured to haul it out of state.
This past summer, I found myself reading about Lynn Rogers and his bears again. Ely was named the “Coolest Small Town in America” in a contest sponsored by a national travel magazine.
How did everyone come to find out about the town of Ely?
A couple of bears did it – with the help of Lynn Rogers.
It all began with Lily the bear and her cub Hope, whose live birth was broadcast worldwide over the internet in January this year. The birth was broadcast via web cam from Lily’s den, with a camera set up by the bear researcher Rogers, who - after mortgaging his own property and obtaining a million-dollar loan - funded construction of the North American Bear Center near Ely three year ago.
Hundreds of thousands of viewers watched online as Lily’s baby bear was born. The Bear Center that sponsored the “den cam” raised over $100,000 in donations during the process to help pay off the Center’s loan. Since that time, bears Lily and Hope have continued to fuel funds, admiration - and controversy.
A second internet contest was held to choose the best state park in America, promoted by bear followers and sponsored by Coca-Cola. Fans of Lily and Hope, plus Ely-area enthusiasts helped vote Bear Head Lake State Park, located between Tower and Ely, “America’s Best State Park. “ The $100,000 prize will be used to fund a visitor or trail center, according to Park Manager Jen Westlund.
(Contestants were permitted to vote as many times as they wanted. But hey, who says the internet has to be democratic?)
Plus, the Center and Park are the recipients of a lot of cash.
NOW, another contest is running on the bears’ Facebook page (www.bear. org), and this time the Black Bear Voting Block is attempting to raise $20,000 in funds for Ely schools.
On the 114,000-member Facebook page, Rogers also enlisted the public’s help in sparing his research bears from being shot by hunters. At his urging, letters are being written by the public to legislators, supporting legislation next year to ban hunting of radio-collared bears. (“Write letters, but make sure you’re nice,” Rogers has said.)
Rogers is not opposed to hunting of bears, he said - just collared research bears. In fact he admitted that in 1965, he helped to write hunting regulations that permitted the baiting of bears. His explanation: Shooting bears wounded many bears, and the animals ended up dying very agonizing deaths. The regulations also greatly reduced limits on the number of bears that could be taken during the season.
Bears are also NOT endangered in Minnesota, and especially not the Ely area, Rogers said, but bears are an endangered species practically everywhere else in the world. As humans encroach further and further into what was once wilderness, the outcome is predictable, he said.
Lynn Rogers and his bears are getting more than just local attention. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) will air three documentaries this winter about Rogers and the bears.
And guess what? Lily the Bear is pregnant again! Another filming is being scheduled to capture the live event from Lily’s den in January (when most bears have their cubs).
OK, OK. I was skeptical. I had to go see for myself.
At the North American Bear Center there are three live bears that the public can view when the bears are not hibernating: Ted (male/14 years old, about 400 pounds), Honey (female/15 years old,) and Lucky (3 years old) who was originally found wandering in Wisconsin (he had been ‘plucked ‘ from a den by someone and then released, it was theorized) and was adopted by the Center.
The Three Bears have been filmed and photographed, indoors and out in the wild, appear on the Bear-cam for internet audiences and on many video monitors at the Bear Center. People are able to watch the bears as they eat, poop, play and nap.
I have to admit, the bears at the Center are charming – playful, furry, even funny. Frolicking and rolling around, up on their hind legs, curious and rambunctious. Kind of like watching kids or a pet.
But I’ll stay behind the glass. You won’t find me feeding them a sandwich out of my mouth, like I’ve seen Lynn Rogers do in photographs. Or crawling into a den to film one. Or putting a bear’s collar on it without the bear being tranquilized. Or whispering to them.
Well, maybe if no one was watching....
As for Lynn Rogers, I guess I’ll have to give him the benefit of the doubt and say I believe in him. But bearly...
Mary Joy Lenont lives and writes on Eagles Nest, near Ely, MN.