Dr. Lynn Rogers, Black Bear Biologist: A Biographical Portrait



Dr. Lynn Rogers with cubs – photo lifted from daily updates on WRI’s site (Same with Shadow below)


Shadow, the oldest 31 year old Matriarch of the clan that Dr Rogers has been studying. She and her offspring are wild bears that live in Eagle Township, a place where wild bears and humans exist without conflict in Ely, Minnesota.


Dedication: To an academic mentor and friend who taught me how to trust what I observed in the field with black bears. The extensive body of his academic work not only educated me but gave me a context for what I saw and experienced, helped me to believe in myself and reinforced my intuitive sense that the bears would teach me everything I needed to know about what they wanted/needed if I simply paid attention to their behavior and gave them the respect they thrive on.


Last November 13th was the 50th anniversary of Dr. Lynn Rogers black bear research, and for the first time ever Lynn began to talk about himself on his daily updates from the Wildlife Research Center in Ely Minnesota. Characteristically, we learned about his personal and professional life through the lens of his naming bears after the people that helped him along the way! Dr. Rogers has a profound quality of deep humility equal to that of Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall who was also his mentor, and pioneered the trust based research that Lynn eventually adopted as his own.


Lynn is 78 years old and was adopted by loving parents who supported his love for animals and his development as a naturalist. This foundation eventually led to his becoming a bear biologist and a scientist of great acclaim.


As a young man Lynn was selected by the Research Director for the Michigan Department of Conservation from dozens of undergraduate applicants for one of the two 1967 summer internships at Cusino Research Station while he was still an undergraduate at Michigan State University. He was left in charge of capturing bears while the director was on vacation. Dr. Erickson then accepted him as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota even though Lynn had another year of undergraduate work to complete. To make that happen Dr. Erickson held open a paid Ph.D. position for over a year. In that capacity Lynn would conduct the first field study of black bears ever done in Minnesota. To give him more experience Dr. Erickson arranged that Lynn be the first intern to return to the Cusino Research Station for a second summer. That fall Lynn discovered that he was enrolled in the prestigious new Department of Ecology and Behavioral Biology that was designed to train students for research. His graduate research was completely funded.


During the fall of 1968 to the spring of 1971 Lynn discovered that the black bear population had been severely decimated. Bears had been managed as varmints with bounties being paid to kill them in any way at any time. Excessive public fear prevented legislators from adding these misunderstood animals to Minnesota’s protected list. Residents demanded the right to shoot bears on sight – commonly gut shooting them so they would die elsewhere. Lynn began lecturing across Minnesota and using the many media opportunities that came with his bear study to change attitudes and to pave the way for new legislation. Lynn was able to introduce and pass the necessary legislation in 1971. He and Dr. Anderson dedicated themselves to educating the public – Dr. Anderson through the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Lynn through giving professional talks and writing extensively.


The DNR officials asked Lynn to write new bear –hunting regulations, which he did. In the spring of 1971 Lynn reduced the seasonal slaughter from 52 weeks to 6, made bear hunting more humane, prohibited shooting bears in dens and set the bear population on the road to recovery. The bear population quadrupled over the next two decades.


In 1974, Lynn expanded his study with grants from Washington based organizations. The National Rifle Association (NRA) gave him more money than they had ever given to any research project and also provided Lynn with an expensive night vision scope.


During that same year an academic paper Lynn wrote won a prestigious award from the society of Mammalogists. When this paper was shown to Harvard professor E.O. Wilson he was writing a book, and when it was published it recognized Lynn’s study as one of the top four animal studies ever done in the world – alongside Jane Goodall’s study of Chimpanzees.


More funding came his way without solicitation. The Washington Office of the U.S. Forest Service took note and began considering a USFS research position for Lynn. Others made similar recommendations. At this point Lynn was still a graduate student who had acquired high –priced help! In this proposed research position Lynn would continue his bear study as a long term United States Forest Service (USFS) project while designing similar innovative studies for other species. Lynn was able to secure funding from Senator Hubert Humphrey and the job became reality it 1976. Lynn was ranked number one in his field and began work in August of that year.


The research scientist position at the USFS was exactly what Lynn needed. The Position Description stated: Supervision is characterized by a degree of confidence in and reliance on the researcher’s productivity, competence, and judgment that there is an unusual level of support of his recommendations and his most novel and as yet seemingly fruitless investigations; the supervisory relationship fully reflects recognition of the incumbent as a top technical authority in his field in the agency and as a distinguished and brilliant scientist. The Incumbent’s technical judgment and conclusions are considered authoritative…


In Lynn’s own words he tells us that “throughout my research I’ve continually tried new things – always with an eye towards kinder, gentler research methods. As part of that I adapted Jane Goodall’s trust- based research methods to bears in the mid – 1980’s. By combining her methods with modern technology, advances in our understanding of black bear behavior, ecology and habitual requirements came quickly.”


As a result Lynn received the 1988 USFS Quality Research Award. To educate he shared his findings with the public through popular articles, lectures, the internet, field courses, and TV documentaries. For the scientific world he senior authored more peer – reviewed scientific papers on black bears than anyone to this day. A worldwide survey of bear biologists conducted by the International Bear Association ranked two of those papers among the top five contributions to the scientific understanding of black bears.


With the attention his trust -based study was getting for its advances (by this time Lynn was collaring bears without needing to sedate them) USFS Associate Chief George Leonard arrived to experience what Lynn was doing in the field. Together, they accompanied a mother and cubs, using a field computer to record what they did, how many bites the family took of each food, and the habitats the bears used.


At the time the USFS was caught up in a nationwide controversy over clear cutting. These bears were showing the benefits of clear cutting for bears – increased berry production meant more natural food. The overall data showed the advantages for the many other species that also benefit from wild berries. George Leonard learned how safe it was to accompany habituated bears in the forest and gave the study his full support. He protected Lynn’s study by having the DNR close his study area to bear hunting, making it safer for the bears and for the nearly 200 citizen scientists that the USFS would soon authorize to accompany Lynn and his study bears. As a result data flowed in revealing more and more about how a forest could be managed not only for lumber but for wildlife.


The data also showed the ecological value of unique oak stands in Palisade Valley. Lynn presented that data to the DNR and The Nature Conservancy for action. The Nature Conservancy took the lead by purchasing the valley and donating it to the state of Minnesota eventually protecting the area for posterity by adding it Tettegouche State Park in 1992.


USFS biologists saw the data the bears were revealing. Dr. Allen Boss top biologist for USFS region 9 (the 23 northeastern states) described the importance to ecosystem management writing: ” In short, this is the foundation of what ecosystem management is all about. This is the kernel of the New Perspectives message and is at the heart of the effort to conserve biological diversity and Threatened and Endangered Species recovery.”


During the white pine controversy many people supported his work. Part of Lynn’s study with the US Forest Service was about obtaining ecological bear data that could help ecosystem management. The bears Lynn was radio tracking and walking with showed them the value of big scattered white pines. The pines hadn’t received much attention because they had no food value to bears, but the bears revealed another aspect of the importance of these trees. Mothers with cubs passed up thousands of other big trees to make 90 percent of their day beds at the bases of these refuge trees that cubs could climb safely and quickly. When Lynn passed on this information he was supplied with data on the importance of these trees to bald eagles, ospreys, and other wildlife. Another important paper was written: Supercanopy, White Pine, and Wildlife.


Nearly all of Minnesota’s white pines had been harvested over the past century. Only 2 percent had grown back. The scattered remaining mature pines were the few that had been spared in the last century and they were doing well but now they were being cut. In fact Minnesota’s two national forests prescribed harvesting most of the remaining white pines and replacing them with red pine and spruce that grow faster and bring in more money. The plan was contrary to ecosystem management, which Lynn was studying. He recommended that the forestry agencies reverse direction and begin to manage the public’s white pines sustainably and conduct more research to improve regeneration. Both the USFS and the Minnesota DNR eventually adopted Lynn’s recommendations and the Governor provided 1.2 million dollars for the regeneration research. This change didn’t occur without a struggle but Lynn was supported by members of the Sierra Club and a legal defense fund was formed with the help of most of Lynn’s co workers.


In February 1996 Lynn introduced a legislative bill to preserve the white pines and an article was written about Lynn entitled “Keeper of the Pines.” The effort was a success and today both the DNR and the USFS leave most of the white pines standing, including those in areas where all other trees are cut. On April 15th 1996, the Minnesota Wilderness and Parks Coalition named Lynn “Minnesota’s Environmental Hero for crusading to preserve and regenerate Minnesota’s depleted white pine forests.


Today Lynn lives and works in Ely Minnesota where the Wildlife Research Institute is located. The North American Bear Center, an ever expanding educational facility dedicated to public education is nearby and there are four wonderful Ambassador bears that cannot be returned to the wild who also live there in very large natural enclosures. Lynn, of course, heads both these organizations because research and education about the misunderstood black bear is still his top priority (Website: www.bearstudy.org ).


Shadow is the matriarch of all the wild bears that Lynn has been studying for all these years. She is the mother of the largest clan ever documented. Amazingly she has retained her reproductive ability longer than any female black bear on record – wild or captive. Her huge clan includes 108 litters (276 cubs) sired by wild male bears who have also been documented whenever possible (many young males are shot). A most exciting development is that Shadow, this 31 year old wild bear, was seen in the wild with a male on June 19th 2017 during the mating season. Shadow is presently keeping everyone in suspense (including me!) to see if she has a cub with her when she emerges from her den in the spring.


More on WRI and NABC:


WRI is conducting the longest and most detailed black bear study and the largest educational outreach program ever done for black bears. Research focuses on improving coexistence between people and bears in an increasingly urbanized environment.  WRI provides the information to over a hundred million people each year through TV, radio, books, magazines, museum exhibits, black bear courses, and the Internet.  It created the content for the North American Bear Center’s new Visitor Center, which opened near Ely, Minnesota, on May 5, 2007.  WRI works with government agencies to improve bear management.  WRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by course fees, lecture fees, memberships, donors, merchandise sales, and dedicated volunteers. Please check out the North American Bear Center’s award-winning website at http://www.bear.org.

The mission of the non-profit North American Bear Center is to advance the long-term survival of bears worldwide by replacing misconceptions with scientific facts about bears, their role in ecosystems, and their relations with humans.

There is a huge need for accurate information about bears worldwide.

Bears have been unfairly demonized for centuries.  Exaggerated perceptions of danger historically led to eradication campaigns using bounties, poison, trapping, and shooting.  All eight bear species around the world are now listed as vulnerable, threatened or endangered in all or portions of their ranges.  Remote habitats that once insured isolation and protection are now being occupied by people, and the attitudes of these people will determine the future of those populations.

The Bear Center is dedicated to replacing misconceptions with facts worldwide.  It is also working to conserve bear habitat, stop poaching for bear body parts, rehabilitate injured and orphaned bears back to the wild, and implement methods to reduce conflict between humans and bears.

Journalist Charles Kuralt, owner of the local Ely Minnesota radio station gives Lynn a weekly program called “The Bear Facts.”

Postscript: All the information presented in this essay comes directly from Lynn’s daily updates and from WRI and NABC. I have plagiarized happily and without guilt!

I conclude urging anyone who has the slightest interest in bears to visit the sites cited above. Lynn’s academic papers are available to peruse along with tons of facts, and wonderful bear videos for people of all ages.