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Elementary students, other 'Fans of Hope' distressed over Web-famous bear's possible death

Hope, the 20-month-old female bear studied by Ely bear researchers became famous when a den camera recorded her birth and first weeks in the den during the winter of 2010. Now her fans fear she may have been killed by a hunter. (Photo by J. Runion)

Last year Dana Coleman's first-grade students at Andover (Minn.) Elementary School followed the lives of Lily the black bear and her cubs Hope and Faith through online videos and daily updates from Ely's North American Bear Center.

Discovering that Minnesota does not have a designated state mammal, the students began an effort to have the black bear named an official state symbol, joining such things as the loon, pink and white lady slipper, red pine and Lake Superior agate on the list.

"Hopefully, because of my first-graders, the black bear will be the state mammal next year," Coleman said.

Monday was a rough day for the students, as they learned that Lynn Rogers of the North American Bear Center and Wildlife Research Institute believes Hope was killed by a hunter.

Coleman met with her current students as well as those from last year to break the news.

"We cried," she said. "They asked a ton of questions. They wanted to know a lot of different things. I was very honest. It is legal."

Fans of Hope, the bear whose birth in a den near Ely was an Internet sensation two winters ago, joined Coleman and her students on Monday in dealing with her disappearance as they waited for word on whether a hunter shot a bear matching her description. Lily's second cub, Faith, was born last winter.

"Two teachers called me yesterday (Sunday) in tears, asking 'What can I tell my students?'" Rogers said.

"You feel terrible about it," Coleman said of Hope's disappearance. "Imagine being the person having to tell 23 first-graders who are now second-graders that one of the bears that they watched and saw grow up in front of them and learned how to be a friend and a big sister and how family works is gone. It was very hard for them. It was a rough morning today."

Minnesota's bear hunting season opened Sept. 1. Hunters are allowed to attract bears by placing food at bait stations. Hope did not have a radio collar but often roamed with Lily, whose collar showed she visited a hunter's bait station three times -- on Sept. 15, 16 and 17.

Rogers believes Hope was shot and killed by a hunter, and had asked the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to notify him of any young female bears registered by hunters in the area.

State wildlife officials said they will provide Rogers with registration information about bears killed in hunting zones near Rogers' study area. Registration information includes the gender of bears killed, the date they were taken and the zone in which they were taken. The age of bears is not included, said Tom Rusch, DNR area wildlife manager at Tower.

It would be difficult to determine whether any of the bears taken in the zone near Rogers' study area was Hope, Rusch said.

"We don't know," he said. "A hunter or the department (DNR) can't identify a specific bear without ear tags or a radio collar or some kind of marking."

The zone nearest Rogers' study area stretches from near Bear Head Lake State Park to Minnesota Highway 65 in Itasca County, Rusch said.

Hope is the 20-month-old female offspring of another bear in Rogers' study area named Lily. The two became famous when a den camera recorded Hope's birth and first weeks in the den during the winter of 2010. Thousands around the world followed the bears through the live den-cam video posted on the Internet.

Rogers studies bears through his nonprofit Wildlife Research Institute based near Ely. It is affiliated with the North American Bear Center in Ely.

Hope was last seen since at 7:05 p.m. Sept. 14, Rogers said. Minnesota's bear hunting season opened Sept. 1. Hunters are allowed to attract bears by placing food at bait stations. Hope did not have a radio collar but often roamed with Lily, whose collar showed she visited a hunter's bait station three times -- on Sept. 15, 16 and 17. Since then, and as recently as Wednesday, Lily and her 2011 cub, a bear named Faith, have been seen twice without Hope, Rogers said.

It would be easier to confirm whether Hope was killed if she were wearing an ear tag, said Jeff Lightfoot, DNR regional wildlife manager at Grand Rapids.

But Rogers said it is not his practice to ear-tag bears that are part of his study.

"It's something we can't do with our trust-based research," Rogers said. "We don't tranquilize and capture. Tranquilizing risks their lives. The research we do is based on trust. If we were sticking needles in them, they wouldn't trust us very long."

Lightfoot said the DNR will not include hunters' names as part of the registration information it provides "due to the private nature of this information."

Rogers said he knows the hunter whose bait station Lily visited, and believes he would not shoot a radio-collared bear, which is legal but discouraged in Minnesota. He said the hunter answered some questions via e-mail but did not say whether he had shot Hope.

"I am not releasing his name," Rogers said of the hunter. "My goal is to coexist with hunters."

Still, Rogers said he has to wonder if the hunter deliberately sought out Hope. He said the hunter has posted messages before on a Facebook page with about 50 fans called "Lily: a bear with a bounty," where some postings last week spoke of "Hope jerky" or Hope cooked in a crockpot.

"It really is a travesty," Coleman said of what she sees as a deliberate attempt to kill Hope or some other research bear. "It wasn't done right."

Lily's Facebook page has more than 132,000 fans. Hope's disappearance has generated hundreds of postings on it, many from mourners and opponents of hunting or, at least, baiting.

On Monday, Sue Mansfield, who works with Rogers, added a post that she and Rogers support bear hunting and baiting.

"We know this is hard for many of you to understand," she wrote. "We will do our best to explain our reasoning in tonight's update. Please be kind to yourselves and each other during this most difficult time. Step away for a while if you need. We'll be here when you come back."

Mansfield spent part of Sunday following Lily and Faith, filming their actions.

"They are doing a lot of wandering around, but there were some really interesting things," she said. "Faith found an old deer antler and was chewing on that. They were poking under rocks looking for things and tearing apart logs for grubs. They took a bath in a muddy wallow."

"We're going to be posting a video of their antics," Mansfield said. "Hopefully we can start feeding that to people so they can start looking past the current crisis."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.