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Minnesota DNR warns of aggressive bears in Ely-Tower area

Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said this collared bear studied by researcher Lynn Rogers is a threat to human safety because it put its paws on an SUV recently at Bearhead Lake State Park near Ely. Rogers said the 10-year-old sow, named June, is not a threat to people and that the DNR is blowing this and other incidents out of proportion. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota DNR)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources warned the public Monday that some black bears in the Ely-Tower area have become aggressive toward people, including bears associated with independent bear researcher Lynn Rogers.

In the past three weeks:

  • One person was injured by a bear that slapped him, spurring several stitches.
  • The DNR reported a collared bear at Bear Head Lake State Park put its paws on a vehicle that had stopped along a road.
  • Another report involved a collared bear "within three feet of a 2-year-old child near the open door of a vehicle." The child's mother scared the bear away only after pushing a wheelbarrow toward it.
  • Then on Monday morning, a homeowner killed a noncollared bear that refused to leave the homeowner's porch. The homeowner fired a warning shot, and then legally shot and killed the bear after it refused to leave about 4 a.m. A conservation officer responded to the incident and took possession of the bear carcass. The bear is not believed to be directly part of Rogers' research.

    Dennis Simon, the DNR's wildlife section chief, told the News Tribune that a recent dry spell in the Arrowhead region has caused a shortage of some natural bear foods in the woods. That has sent some bears scrambling for garbage, dog food, bird feed, gardens and other human-provided food.

    Some Eagles Nest Township residents and local DNR officials have for years complained that Rogers' research bears become habituated to humans and easy food and lose their fear of people. It's the latest in a long line of often heated issues between Rogers and the DNR.

    DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr flew to Tower on Monday evening to meet with Rogers and ask his assistance to prevent interactions between bears and people.

    The DNR is asking Rogers "if he can help us identify some of the bears, so we can get a better sense of if it's one individual that's become more visible, or more of a global problem with a number of different bears," Simon said. "And asking him, with his knowledge of bears, what action we might want to take. ... We don't want anybody hurt. We're looking at all avenues we can to minimize bear-human interaction."

    That may mean shooting a bear that's identified as a troublemaker, Simon said.

    But Rogers said this is the latest effort by some DNR officials to sabotage his work, and he downplayed any danger. The bear who put its paws on the SUV is one called June, Rogers said, a 10-year old sow and one of the "longest-running data sets in our study."

    June also is the mother of Lily, the mother bear made famous over the past two years because of a camera placed in her den that transmitted video worldwide on the Internet.

    "June putting her paws on that vehicle is a non-event. She wouldn't hurt anyone," Rogers said. "They get complaints all the time, from all over the state, of bears who supposedly show no fear of people. But they only seem to take action when it's around here."

    In the case of the man injured by the bear, Rogers said a homeowner in the Eagles Nest area went out to feed a noncollared bear with cubs in his yard when he was slapped. The victim received several stitches but has healed, Rogers said.

    "He went out in the dark when he couldn't see the bear and read the bear's intentions. ... He pressed a mother with cubs a little too hard, and she slapped him in the face. One time, that was it. He backed off and went in the house," Rogers said. "He feels bad about the whole situation. He doesn't want the bear to be harmed. He knows it was his fault, not the bear's."

    DNR officials said they can't comment on that situation because it remains under investigation.

    Rogers is the only researcher using collars in that area, mostly in Eagles Nest Township. In addition to placing collars on bears he befriends, Rogers' work through his Wildlife Research Institute also involves feeding bears in an effort to see if intentional feeding can reduce nuisance bear-human interactions.

    Rogers said he analyzed bear complaints to the DNR from the public from across northern Minnesota and that complaints for his research area were 80 percent below the average over a 10-year period.

    The report of aggressive collared bears comes just a week after the DNR asked hunters not to shoot any collared bears, including Rogers', when bear hunting season starts Thursday.

    The DNR urges the public not to feed bears, saying home and cabin owners can reduce bear problems by reducing garbage can odors, removing bird feeders and keeping pet food inside. If you are approached by a bear, the DNR says to back away slowly and try to go indoors and wait for the bear to leave. If a bear refuses to leave, make loud noises and throw something to scare it away. Always allow the bear an escape route.

    People can report aggressive bear behavior to a local conservation officer. For more information about living in bear country, go here.

    Staff writer Sam Cook Contributed to this story.

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