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Hope, the Internet-famous Ely bear, is missing and feared dead

Lily and Hope chose this site for their winter den in this October 2010 file photo. (Sue Mansfield / for the News Tribune)

The bear whose birth in a den near Ely was an Internet sensation two winters ago is missing and feared dead.

Hope the bear hasn't been seen since Wednesday night, said Lynn Rogers, biologist for the North American Bear Center of Ely. Circumstances lead him to believe the 2-year-old female was shot and killed by a hunter. The bear had traveled all summer with its mother, Lily, and Faith, a cub born to Lily last winter.

They had been drawn to bait placed in their territory, and then Hope vanished, Rogers said.

"It's just too much of a coincidence that when this hunter set up his bait and Lily began visiting that at that moment, Hope disappeared," he said.

Hope wasn't wearing a radio collar that would identify her as a bear used in research, Rogers said. Biologists had put radio collars on the bear four times, and she had managed to remove it each time.

Rogers knows the hunter who put out the bait, and the hunter knows about the research bears, Rogers said. "We've e-mailed back and forth, but he just avoids answering the question whether or not he, or someone in his party, shot Hope."

He declined to name the hunter.

Rogers has asked the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to notify him of any young female bears registered by hunters in the area, but he doesn't expect to hear back from them until Monday.

The bear center has received several reports of bears being spotted over the past several days. Each one was checked out and turned out not to be Hope.

Lily had two cubs last winter, but one of the cubs died in April. Still, three generations remained, and that had been the source of a potential resource bonanza, Rogers said.

"There was so much that we were looking forward to learning from this family," he said. "This was the first mixed-age litter that's ever been really studied, and just about everything that we saw turned out opposite from what most people would predict."

He was especially looking forward to see how the bears would behave next spring during the time of "family breakup," Rogers said.

Drought conditions in far northern Minnesota made bait particularly attractive to bears during this hunting season, Rogers said.

"They went to the bait, and Hope disappeared."