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Lynn Rogers and a bear named Brave Heart in Ely, Minnesota.

Lynn Rogers and a bear named Brave Heart in Ely, Minnesota.

Photograph by Brian Peterson, Zuma Press/Corbis

Ker Than

for National Geographic

Published August 20, 2013

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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15 comments
Bob Lammi
Bob Lammi

As a lifelong resident of Ely, MN I have followed this controversy about Lynn Rogers.  I have also spent my life living around black bears and am quite familiar with the dangers of bears and other wild animals.  Bears are wild animals that can be extremely dangerous to humans and should not be fed by humans.  I challenge any detractors to take a course on wildlife biology for a better understanding of why bears (or any other wild animal) die of starvation.  I believe this would lead to a better understanding of nature as human feeding of one species of animal leads to overpopulation and results in long standing negative effects of that population and others also.

Mr. Rogers did not follow the agreement he had with the MN Dept. of Natural Resources regarding his so-called research because it cannot meet the established requirements demanded by researchers.  One main requirement requires  the writing and publication of professional peer reviewed papers, by the established scientific community using approved and established research techniques.  Lynn Rogers cannot meet these requirements.

  I agree that black bear attacks are few and far between, but valid research has proven that they do increase as they get used to human contact.

  It also is apparent to me that some posts here represent more of a sales pitch for certain products and organizations rather than scientific facts proven by the established scientific community.

Donna Anello
Donna Anello

Tim Treadwell is not on point here.  Dr. Rogers has been studying bears for decades, and moreover works with black bears, not grizzlies (there's a difference in personality).  Treadwell was an uneducated person who just decided to go hang around bears in a manner that no one would advocate, with a predictable resulting end.  It is sad that due to all Treadwell's Hollywood connections, a person like him with no training has now become the poster boy for "What Happens When You Deal With Bears of Any Sort."  Hopefully Dr. Rogers will be able to successfully change the public perception of bears, or at least black bears, and combat the negative image propagated by Treadwell and by a host of high profile "fierce bear" stories on bear attacks. I note there are also numerous news stories where a black bear wanders through a populated neighborhood WITHOUT attacking anybody, and I imagine there are a number of such incidents that never even make the news because a bear wandering around and disappearing back into the woods without doing anything violent is not newsworthy.

I am a bit disturbed by the statement "This interview has been edited" at the end of the Nat Geo article.  This is a hot topic and I would like to know what Nat Geo decided to edit out?

Peace Seeker
Peace Seeker

For thirteen summers, Timothy Treadwell communed with the bears of Katmai National Park. Emerging from an addiction to drugs and alcohol, Timothy escaped to the wilderness of Alaska, finding his salvation among the bears with whom he felt a close kindred spirit. A self-proclaimed expert on bear behavior, he presented himself to the public as the protector of an “endangered species”, and became an overnight celebrity flaunting videos of himself petting the bears. On October 6, 2003 Timothy and his companion Amie Huguenard were mauled and partially eaten by the very bears they loved and sought to protect. The story unfolded in newspapers and magazines across the globe, reporting Treadwell’s passion for bears, delving into details of Treadwell’s life and outlining the personal choices that ultimately led to his death. I have spent a lot of time in bear country, living among the bears, studying them and filming them for more than 25 years. They are fascinating animals that demand respect, but are extremely tolerant and accepting of humans if we just behave correctly around them. Timothy Treadwell’s behavior around bears was a concern long before the tragedy on Katmai, not just for his own safety but because of the way he portrayed the bears to the public. The best way to protect the bears is to teach people how to behave in bear country. Films of him walking among the grizzly, approaching them and even touching them inspired others to do the same. Bear attacks, injuries and killings presented by a zealous media generates confusion, fear and hatred. Treadwell’s passion for the bears was a deadly passion. His misguided approach to bridging the gap between humans and bears caused only harm to the animals he loved and dedicated his life to protect.

http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/6801

Ionescu Emanuel
Ionescu Emanuel

Having such contact with bears is indeed...controversial. If most humans would know how to treat animals then it wouldn't be a problem. But many members of our species don't know how to behave with their own kind, let alone animals, so in my opinion as well intentioned as this man may be, he should probably stop and instead teach bears to fear humans and to avoid them.


As for humans, they should mind their own business and stop violating bear territory or to intentionally seek contact with bear cubs. (only an absolute idiot does that anyway...) 

Stephen Stringham
Stephen Stringham

Habituating bears to people and feeding them are a complex issues.  For the results depend on the circumstances.  In the Tahoe region of California, black bears were provided with food during a famine of natural foods.  This reduced property damage by bear by roughly $9 million during a 3-month period.  It also reduced face-to-face conflicts between bears and people.  Results will be presented at the Sept. 19, 2013 poster session of the International Bear Assoc. conference in Provo Utah.  As to habituation, read articles by Rogers, myself and Val Geist in the fall 2011 issue of Human-Wildlife Interactions.  Just google under the journal name.  The articles can be read online for free.  In the course of my own research on bear behavior, I have had thousands of close encounters with wild black and brown/grizzly bears without being harmed -- because the bears trusted me, had plenty of (mostly wild() food, and preferred avoiding trouble.  Anyone interested in the subject should consult the website of the Bear Viewing Assoc.  www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info

Look for the tab at the top of the Home Page "Books & Videos".  It lists several books on these and related subjects.  WHEN BEARS WHISPER, DO YOU LISTEN? is especially germane.


Stephen F. Stringham, PhD

Director, Bear Viewing Association

Director, Bear Communication & Coexistence Research Program

Stephen Stringham
Stephen Stringham

Habituating bears to people and feeding them are a complex issues.  For the results depend on the circumstances.  In the Tahoe region of California, black bears were provided with food during a famine of natural foods.  This reduced property damage by bear by roughly $9 million during a 3-month period.  It also reduced face-to-face conflicts between bears and people.  Results will be presented at the Sept. 19, 2013 poster session of the International Bear Assoc. conference in Provo Utah.  As to habituation, read articles by Rogers, myself and Val Geist in the fall 2011 issue of Human-Wildlife Interactions.  Just google under the journal name.  The articles can be read online for free.  In the course of my own research on bear behavior, I have had thousands of close encounters with wild black and brown/grizzly bears without being harmed -- because the bears trusted me, had plenty of (mostly wild() food, and preferred avoiding trouble.  Anyone interested in the subject should consult the website of the Bear Viewing Assoc.  www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info

Look for the tab at the top of the Home Page "Books & Videos".  It lists several books on these and related subjects.  WHEN BEARS WHISPER, DO YOU LISTEN? is especially germane.


Stephen F. Stringham, PhD]

Director, Bear Viewing Association

Director, Bear Communication & Coexistence Research Program


Stephen Stringham
Stephen Stringham

Habituating bears to people and feeding them are a complex issues.  For the results depend on the circumstances.  In the Tahoe region of California, black bears were provided with food during a famine of natural foods.  This reduced property damage by bear by roughly $9 million during a 3-month period.  It also reduced face-to-face conflicts between bears and people.  Results will be presented at the Sept. 19, 2013 poster session of the International Bear Assoc. conference in Provo Utah.  As to habituation, read articles by Rogers, myself and Val Geist in the fall 2011 issue of Human-Wildlife Interactions.  Just google under the journal name.  The articles can be read online for free.  In the course of my own research on bear behavior, I have had thousands of close encounters with wild black and brown/grizzly bears without being harmed -- because the bears trusted me, had plenty of (mostly wild() food, and preferred avoiding trouble.  Anyone interested in the subject should consult the website of the Bear Viewing Assoc.  www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info

Look for the tab at the top of the Home Page "Books & Videos".  It lists several books on these and related subjects.  WHEN BEARS WHISPER, DO YOU LISTEN? is especially germane.


Stephen F. Stringham, PhD]

Director, Bear Viewing Association

Director, Bear Communication & Coexistence Research Program


Stephen Stringham
Stephen Stringham

Habituating bears to people and feeding them are a complex issues.  For the results depend on the circumstances.  In the Tahoe region of California, black bears were provided with food during a famine of natural foods.  This reduced property damage by bear by roughly $9 million during a 3-month period.  It also reduced face-to-face conflicts between bears and people.  Results will be presented at the Sept. 19, 2013 poster session of the International Bear Assoc. conference in Provo Utah.  As to habituation, read articles by Rogers, myself and Val Geist in the fall 2011 issue of Human-Wildlife Interactions.  Just google under the journal name.  The articles can be read online for free.  In the course of my own research on bear behavior, I have had thousands of close encounters with wild black and brown/grizzly bears without being harmed -- because the bears trusted me, had plenty of (mostly wild() food, and preferred avoiding trouble.  Anyone interested in the subject should consult the website of the Bear Viewing Assoc.  www.bear-viewing-in-alaska.info

Look for the tab at the top of the Home Page "Books & Videos".  It lists several books on these and related subjects.  WHEN BEARS WHISPER, DO YOU LISTEN? is especially germane.


Stephen F. Stringham, PhD]

Director, Bear Viewing Association

Director, Bear Communication & Coexistence Research Program


Xira Arien
Xira Arien

By feeding the bears with 'diversionary feeding stations' and thereby making sure they never go hungry you are eventually going to increase the number of bears to an unsustainable level, which WILL cause problems when the bear children grow up and you don't provide an ever growing amount of food to keep them happy.


It's a short term solution that will lead to long term problems.


I guess we could just let/hire hunter shoot the excess bears, that would be sustainable.


http://llltexas.com <- my blog

Miguel Rodriguez
Miguel Rodriguez

The work and methods of Lynn Rogers are very controversial, indeed. From a traditional point of view in etology, we must observe and register all behavior of individuals (and we need to identify every individual first) and then try to understand this behavior in the context in which was observed. And of course we have to avoid any interference with the subject of study. But, what if we can't see the animal at all?. I don't know how much the bears in Rogers's study had changed their natural behavior due to his technics of feed them and interact with them. But is a fact that is precisely  this close observation that he has obtained an incredible amount of data about growth rates in the population, size changes during the year and across the whole life of individual bears, mating preferences and rituals, impact over bear population due to factors like food disponibility, hunting and a long etcetera. So, I'm not so sure about it...yet.

T. McGrath
T. McGrath

Yet another Timothy Tredwell wannabe.

Caroline LeBreton
Caroline LeBreton

Good article, its tiring when everyone blames these animals.

Marianne Harding
Marianne Harding

@T. McGrath I went on one of Dr. Rogers' black bear study courses in 2008. He is anything but a Treadwell wannabe. And BTW, Treadwell worked with grizzly bears while Dr. Rogers works with black bears. If you can't tell the difference, perhaps you should refrain from commenting.

g k
g k

@Caroline LeBreton no one blames bears for being bears....OTOH blaming humans for being stupid is like saying using whitewash on fences leaves a white fence. Stupid is as stupid does and this guys just helped lower the bar on human stupidity.

Ed Iverson
Ed Iverson

@g k @Caroline LeBreton Based on what?  The data seem to indicate that his technique works.  His bears cause no problems, and he is able to observe them up close.  Unless you think you can learn more from tranquilized or dead bears than you can by observing live ones.  And of course people blame bears for being bears, and wolves for being wolves, and on it goes.  They shoot them all the time just for being what they are.  One thing is certain, comment pages are filled with snark and insults, delivered from the false courage of anonymity, and you just lowered the bar on that.

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