Some History - UPDATE September 2, 2017

Last night I posted a picture of one of our trail cams covered with branches to render it useless.  Today, someone sent me a quote from bear-hunting guide Todd Larson’s page, saying “So I understand there are two kinds of people out there. V Dot on Sept. 2, 2015V Dot on Sept. 2, 2015Those that are against hunting and those that are for hunting.  The reason we cover the cameras is so our license plates and our faces are not put on social media without our permission.”  I don’t know of anyone I know ever doing that, but here’s some actual history about myself and my involvement with hunting.

When I came to Minnesota as a graduate student in the fall of 1968, I began the first major study of black bears ever done here.  It was sponsored mainly by the Minneapolis Big Game Club and eventually by the NRA, the Wildlife Management Institute, the Boone and Crockett Club, the National Wildlife Federation, and various sportsmen’s organizations.  Local hunting groups held target shoots to raise money for it.  The Minnesota DNR had long wanted to have a licensed bear season, but fear of bears was rampant in Minnesota, and people will not coexist with animals they fear.  A hunting season on bears would limit residents right to kill any bear any time, so the DNR couldn’t get it through the legislature.  Bear numbers were low.  They had been bountied for years.  When the bounty finally was lifted in 1965, bear status became the same as rats.  They were varmints to be killed at any time, in any manner, by any person 52 weeks per year.  The common practice was for residents to gut-shoot them so they would die away from residences, sometimes months later, without the need to bury the carcasses.

My study got a lot of media coverage, and I used it to change attitudes toward bears.  I did lecture tours around the state, sharing information and changing attitudes.  I wanted to elevate Minnesota’s black bears to big game status, and that required a better public understanding of what these animals are really like.  They are not the ferocious animals portrayed in the hunting magazines of the time, by museums who feature unnaturally snarling mounts, and the constant warnings issued by government agencies.  My greatest allies were hunters.  I worked closely with Dick Anderson, president of the Minnesota State Archery Association and with legislators.   A young DNR employee named Roger Holmes encouraged me.  I met with hunting groups to share results of my study and to get their thoughts on what bear-hunting regulations should be.  Should shooting cubs be legal?  Should it be legal to shoot bears in dumps where they had been coming for food all year?   Should we allow 22’s and other weapons that would likely wound bears and not kill them?  Should we allow them to be trapped in leg-hold traps for easy kills.  We came to easy agreements that made common sense.  The movement gained momentum.  Public attitudes changed.  In spring 1971, our bill passed.  DNR Fish and Wildlife Director Dave Vesall asked me to write the regulations, which I wrote to make hunting more humane and to allow the population to recover.  It quadrupled over the next two decades through well managed hunting.  Dick Anderson and I dedicated ourselves to learning all we could about bears and sharing it both in our own ways.  Dick initiated the DNR’s bear hunting education classes, and I made research and education my life.

The hunting regulations created a half-mile buffer around garbage dumps where bears had been fed throughout the year.  Hunters considered it unsporting to shoot such bears.  The regulations prohibited shooting cubs.  The regulations introduced baiting.  The biggest problem with bear-hunting is wounding loss.  A study showed wounding loss to be about 13%.  Baiting would reduce the number killed and give wildlife managers more accurate data to work with.  Instead of hunters wounding bear after bear until they actually could tag one; baiting gave hunters clean, killing shots and gave bear-hunting guides jobs.

As people learned to live with bears, the population grew.  Bear-hunting grew.  Most hunters were respectable but some crowded in around the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary to get easy shots at bears that did not fear people and had been traveling the trails to the sanctuary for years.  Local hunting guide Dennis Udovich, president of the Minnesota Bear Guides Association, discouraged such “hunting.”  He also discouraged hunters from crowding in around the community where I am conducting my research.  The community has fed bears since 1961, and I am studying the effects of that on the bears—their diets, travels, social organization, growth, reproduction, hibernation, longevity, etc.  As part of that, we have accumulated a family tree that spans 6 generations.  The matriarch of the clan is 30-year-old Shadow.

Bear hunters respected my research, and I respected them.  For the most part, they avoided shooting radio-collared bears and appreciated learning along with me as data accumulated.

In 2000, a hunter and his brothers crowded in around the feeding area and killed a radio-collared bear, ending a vital hibernation study that that bear was crucial to.  The hunter wanted to know more about the bear he killed, and I nicely gave him whatever he wanted.  As he learned about the research value of the bear, he laughed and said, “I must have ruined your day!”  A couple days later, his brother shot another radio-collared bear, and they continued baiting close in to a feeding area to try to fill their third license the easy way.  I didn’t mention it to the media.  I didn’t want to give hunters a bad name.  Somehow, a newspaper got hold of the story, tracked down details, and published their names and hometowns.  A public outcry resulted akin to the outcry over Cecil the lion.  The DNR began asking hunters not to shoot radio-collared bears.  No hunter killed another radio-collared bear in my study area until 2005.  That’s when a few hunters began crowding in and taking study bears.  A couple of them became my friends and stopped.  None of them were associated with Todd Larson.  Todd respected my study and avoided my study area—until 2012.

That’s the year the DNR gave him a key to a gate a mile from my research center.  The key gave him access to my property boundaries.  He had his hunters surround the property, and the killing began.  I worked with Todd.  I asked him to at least let me see the bears his hunters killed for my records and to provide data for the family tree, etc.  He cooperated.  I enjoyed talking with his hunters and giving them any background they wanted on the bears they killed—age, position in the family tree, etc.  When his hunter shot a big bear very near my property line, I gave him permission to track it on my property and put it out of its misery.  Todd let me see the bears that were killed.

The community didn’t feel so kindly.  The gated road had been their safe place during bear-hunting season.  It was where they could hike, walk their dogs, and enjoy the bug-free out-of-doors without fear of being shot.  In 2012, a couple were walking the road when a volley of shots rang out beside the road.  The hunter could not see them, and leaves won’t stop bullets.  Terrified, they ran for home and wrote a letter to the editor.  A resident drove down the road blowing her horn in protest. A hunter heard the horn and called the police, claiming hunter harassment.  One of Todd’s hunters shot a cub near a home.  A homeowner who feeds bears wondered what was going on so close to the community.  He drove his 4-wheeler up the road to learn more.  Seeing Todd’s vehicle, he walked into the woods to ask about it.  Todd escorted him out of the woods quickly, saying over and over how pissed he was that someone would drive a 4-wheeler up the (public) road so close to where he had hunters.  The resident said something about the community, and I heard Todd say he “cared nothing about the community.” I had been standing nearby waiting for Todd to call me to see the kill.  I asked him about the shot.  He lied and told me it had nothing to do with his hunters.  Meanwhile, the mother bear led her two surviving cubs to the homeowner’s yard.  After a couple days of residents seeing the mother with only two cubs, a mother they had seen with all three earlier on the day of the shot, it was evident that the cub had been shot.  I believed Todd that it was not his hunter who shot the cub.  I called the conservation officer to report the killing.  I wouldn’t have called if it was Todd.  I was working with Todd.  Todd was angry that I had called and that I had not defended him against the angry resident.  The resident wrote a letter to the editor, and Todd never let me see another bear that was killed.  We are trying our best to learn what we can with trail cams that he covers up.  We doubt that his hunters know the unsporting circumstances of their kills and how bad they and Todd are making hunters and guides look to this nature-loving community.

There is much more to say, but this is enough for one sitting.

To Lily Fans who are watching this situation from around the world, I say Thank you for all you do.  I don’t know of any study bears being killed today.

Lynn Rogers, Biologist, Wildlife Research Institute and North American Bear Center