by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
A Fed Bear is a Dead Bear; Right?
As I write, an epic battle of long standing has escalated in Minnesota; I’m not going to assume what stage it will be at by the time you read this. And a disclaimer up front: It involves an old friend of mine, Lynn Rogers, a bear researcher who has gained widespread acclaim from both academia and the public for his work at the Wildlife Research Institute with wild American black bears. That said, I certainly hope I would not allow friendship to sway my views. If I thought his work was deleterious to its stated goals, I’d certainly say so.
Perhaps, too, I should say that at one time I would have disagreed with Rogers’ views, and still would, if my knowledge of his work was superficial, or if I had not had my own problems with the wildlife management community. But in my experience, it is prone to ignore or deny inconvenient facts in favour of wildlife management dogma. I could give examples from my own work with a range of species where the wildlife managers have collectively ignored facts that challenged their rationales for various policies, but the rigid belief that is affecting Rogers’ ability to work is summarized in the phrase “A fed bear is a dead bear.” It’s literally true when bear hunters put food down to bait bears close to their guns, but that’s not what it means…in the topsy-turvy world of wildlife management, “habituating” bears to gut piles and jelly donuts is quite alright if you mean to shoot one of them.
The phrase really means that if you feed potentially dangerous or unpopular wildlife, thus attracting such animals (raccoons, coyotes, bears, pigeons, Canada geese, deer, crows…the list is long), you may trigger lethal responses against them, especially black bears whose strength and predatory nature makes them potentially dangerous to human life and limb, not to mention the mess they can make.
But that’s not what Rogers advocates. He has, instead, explored a controversial process called diversionary feeding. The documented fact is that apart from females defending cubs and wounded animals, bears pose a risk to us when they are hungry, when natural food supplies falter or are absent(which is usually due to unusual weather, a late spring, drought, or failure of berries to ripen at the usual time), or when people have food the bears want. At such times bears go where the food is, which means human communities. Bears are omnivores who eat, well, almost anything edible (and some things dubious). Indications from work in the field show that diversionary feeding, the placement of food in uninhabited areas, can draw bears away from where they aren’t wanted, and removes their motivation (hunger) to enter potential conflicts.
Rogers also has sought in myriad ways to literally teach people to better understand bear behavior, thus significantly reducing the risks faced by people who come upon bears (or vice versa). Through webcams placed in bear dens and long term studies using radio telemetry (which sends a radio signal from collars on the bears, thus allowing researchers to precisely track their movements, however far), Lynn has helped folks learn how bears live. He and his colleagues have shown that people and bears can co-exist in relative safety to both.
All of this is an anathema to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR, which recently pulled Roger’s permit that allows him to do his radio-telemetry research). Rogers has systematically and exhaustively responded to each of their concerns, while constantly giving examples of their lack of co-operation. Their major concern, put simply, is that Rogers and the Wildlife Research Institute put people at risk of bear attacks by making bears used to people, and people less fearful of bears. The DNR claims there have been complaints, although Rogers undoubtedly has huge support from the community, municipal politicians and much of academia.
Rogers claims all attempts to sit down and go over the concerns have been thwarted, and he is now scheduled to meet with Governor Mark Dayton on July 22nd. Certainly his work has generated tourism and funding for the region. But whenever there is a concern, a complaint, it seems that the DNR blames him and his work. When bear hunters are harassed, Rogers and his supporters are to blame, without proof, and notwithstanding his concerted effort to get along with hunters, as their support (in not shooting the collared bears) is essential. A bear shows up near a bus stop, and the DNR claims it is one of Rogers’ research animals, even though all are accounted for (thanks to radio telemetry) and nowhere near the bus stop.
The situation is absurdly toxic, and oddly, perhaps, the claim from DNR that most irritated me because it is so typical of wildlife management types, is that the Institute’s work is no longer important! Huh? It is precisely because it is so long term that it becomes increasingly important. While the work is often compared to that of Jane Goodall, who also followed wildlife populations, chimpanzees, through multiple generations over long periods, it really reminds me of someone less famous: Margaret Morse Nice (1883 – 1974) who, when women were not expected to do such things, chose an animal common near her Ohio home, the song sparrow, and intently studied the species in the field for eight consecutive years, publishing the results in 1937. It may have been the first time that someone bothered to actually study living wild animals and their community through successive generations, and it catapulted her to huge recognition within the field of ornithology.
I hope, for the sake of knowledge, the DNR reverses its decision. Or put another way, I hope, for the sake of democratic civility and in the interest of simple fairness, the DNR has to explain its decision. It is because of the controversial nature of Rogers’ work that it is needed. Clearly there has been no uptake in bear attacks - quite the contrary - and evidence elsewhere supports the idea that diversionary feeding and education, properly done, work to protect bears and people.