North American Bear Center founder and principal biologist, Dr. Lynn Rogers, PhD (born April 9, 1939), has spent 50+ years studying wildlife behavior and ecology. Specializing in bears, he has senior-authored more peer-reviewed scientific articles on black bears than anyone. To follow the lives of over 300 bears in the vast forests of northeastern Minnesota he used airplanes, canoes, snowmobiles, and snowshoes; studying individual bears for up to 23 years. Along the way, he learned that black bears are not the ferocious animals some people think and that researchers can accompany them for data collection. As part of that, he combined Jane Goodall’s trust-based research methods (Goodall 1971) with modern technology (telemetry, GPS, field computers, webcams, the internet, etc.) and turned his initial population study into a broad state-of-the-arts study of behavior, ecology, hibernation, vocalizations, body language, social organization, physiology, and bear-human relations.
Rogers is also the founder and principal biologist of the Wildlife Research Institute (WRI) near Ely, Minnesota. Most of his published papers can be downloaded from the WRI website at bearstudy.org. Two of those papers (Rogers 1976, 1987) were ranked among the all-time top five contributions to the understanding of bears of all kinds, according to a worldwide survey of bear biologists by the International Bear Association (Martinka 1994).
Rogers’ bear research began in 1967 with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in his home state. There, he met University of Minnesota Professor Albert W. Erickson, the original pioneer of black bear research. After working together for only a week, Erickson offered Rogers the chance of a lifetime—to become his graduate student and conduct Minnesota’s first black bear field study. Rogers still had his senior year to complete at Michigan State University. Erickson held the offer open.
In August 1968, Rogers arrived at the University of Minnesota to a wonderful surprise. Erickson had fast-tracked him directly into the PhD program and enrolled him in the prestigious new Department of Ecology and Behavioral Biology designed to train researchers. Rogers met his sponsor, Wallace Dayton, and learned that Minnesota’s bear population had been decimated by decades of bounties paid to kill bears as varmints. From DNR official Roger Holmes, Rogers learned that a pervasive fear of bears made residents want the right to kill bears on sight and had kept legislators from adding bears to Minnesota’s protected list.
Rogers remembered his fear of bears. He had grown up reading hunting magazines, seeing snarling bear faces in museums, and hearing government warnings about bears. He was still wary of mothers with cubs. But he had learned enough from his 191 captures of black bears in Michigan to know that black bears were not the ferocious animals most people thought and that their behavior was characterized much more by restraint than ferocity.
He began his bear study as a population study. He used the media coverage of his study to change public attitudes about bears. Using his data, he worked with prominent people, including legislators, to add bears to Minnesota’s protected list. The legislation passed in spring 1971.
The DNR asked Rogers to outline the direction black bear management should take in Minnesota. He wrote regulations that reduced bear-hunting from 52 weeks to 6, made bear-hunting more humane, and enabled the bear population to quadruple over the next two decades. He knew the importance of education and made that a major part of his work. On July 8, 1971, Commissioner Robert Herbst thanked Dayton, saying in part: “Mr. Lynn Rogers has been most helpful to us and very cooperative. His many talks to various groups throughout the state and testimony before legislative committees to explain black bear management needs helped solidify thinking concerning the direction that black bear management in our state should take. He helped materially in the passage of the legislation putting the black bear on the protected list and giving the animal big game status. This was an outstanding example of the application of research findings to a practical management program.” For the entire letter, click here.
By 1975, Rogers’ study was ranked as one of the five major studies of large mammals in the world and was noted for being the first study of the social organization of an animal that leads a mostly solitary life (Wilson 1975, page 502). All previous studies of social organization had been on social species such as chimpanzees, wolves, lions, and elephants. Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson characterized the top studies: “Few animal populations have been studied for so long in the wild. As in Lynn Rogers’ black bears, Iain Douglas-Hamilton’s elephants, and Jane van Lawick-Goodall’s chimpanzees, a new level of resolution has been attained, in which free-ranging individuals are tracked from birth through socialization, parturition, and death, and their idiosyncrasies, personal alliances, and ecological relationships recorded in clinical detail” (Wilson 1975, page 504).
In 1976, the U. S. Forest Service (USFS) created a research scientist position for Rogers to make his bear study a long-term USFS research project and for Rogers to aid USFS ecosystem management by designing similarly innovative projects for other species. The position offered Rogers broad creative freedom to develop new methods for learning the complex ecologies of bears and other species as described in his Position Description (1976 – 1993 USFS Research Scientist, pages 3-4). He tried new things to learn new things, always with an eye toward kinder, gentler methods that would give deeper insights.
With solid support from the USFS plus support from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), several national conservation organizations, and many local groups and individuals, Rogers’ bear study became the longest, broadest, most detailed bear study ever done.
One of Rogers’ early (1977-1980) ecosystem management projects was documenting habitat use by deer and moose—the two main prey species of the endangered timber wolf. In a major break-through, Rogers and his assistants became the first researchers to accompany free-ranging individuals that made their living from the forest, ignored their presence, and allowed them to record habitat use and behavior minute by minute, 24 hours at a time, in all seasons. No previous study had come close to the kinds of data obtained in that way.
But Rogers was initially hesitant to do that with bears. He worried about putting the bears at risk and being attacked by mothers with cubs. He worried that the bluff-charges and lunges he had seen could turn into attacks if the bears lost fear of him.
Years passed. When no bear followed through with its ferocious-looking displays, Rogers began to see these displays for what they were—harmless expressions of their own fear. That realization helped Rogers react to their vocalizations and body language in ways that eased their fears. Bears began to trust him, and he them—day and night—with or without cubs. Bears ceased their displays and went about their lives ignoring him like Jane Goodall had witnessed years earlier with chimpanzees (Goodall 1971). Rogers and his assistants obtained a field computer and created a computer program for recording detailed data. They safely accompanied bears for 24-hour periods, gathering much of the scientific information now available on their behavior, language, ecology, and much more (Rogers and Wilker 1990). On August 27, 1991, Dr. Allen Boss, top biologist for USFS Region 9 (the 23 northeastern states), described the importance of Rogers’ detailed ecological data to ecosystem management: “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.” The resulting north woods habitat use model (Rogers and Allen 1987) is still being used by ecosystem managers now over 30 years later, and the resulting Wildlife Monograph (Rogers 1987) became one of the most-cited black bear papers ever written.
The bears gave a broader view of habitat use when they traveled 20 to 126 miles outside the usual study area to areas where different lobes of Ice Age glaciers had deposited different soil types, leading to different habitats and bear foods today. An example is a unique oak habitat on the fertile ridges of Palisade Valley adjacent to Tetagouche State Park in northeastern Minnesota. Its loamy ridges, created by the Superior Lobe, drew bears from Rogers’ less fertile study area where sandy, gravelly soils were deposited by the Mesabi Lobe. Rogers documented the importance of the oak habitat to bears and other wildlife. The DNR and Nature Conservancy then acquired Palisade Valley, and the Minnesota State Legislature protected it by adding it to Tetagouche State Park in 1992.
Habitat use data also aided management of Minnesota’s scattered mature white pines that cubs can safely climb. These trees have no food value to bears, but mothers with cubs used them as refuge trees, passing up thousands of other big trees to make over 90 percent of their beds at the bases of them. These trees that tower high above the others are also important to bald eagles, ospreys, and other wildlife highlighted a problem (Rogers and Lindquist 1992). Documenting the importance of these trees to wildlife highlighted a problem. They were scarce and being cut at a vastly unsustainable rate. Only 2% of Minnesota’s white pines had grown back after near total harvest of them during the previous century. The few mature white pines that had escaped the harvest were down to their last 0.1%, had centuries of life left in them, and were being cut. Regeneration was hampered by multiple human-caused problems. Instead of protecting these forest giants, the new forest plan for Minnesota’s two national forests prescribed harvesting 86% of the remaining white pines and replacing them with red pine and white spruce that were easier to regenerate and would yield a bigger bang for the buck.
Rogers recommended that the USFS and DNR reverse direction. He recommended that they manage the public’s white pines sustainably and do research to improve regeneration. In time, both agencies accepted his recommendations, and Governor Arne Carlson provided 1.2 million dollars for the regeneration research. Today, these agencies leave most white pines standing, including those in areas where all other trees are cut. On April 15, 1996, the Minnesota Wilderness and Parks Coalition named Rogers “Minnesota’s Environmental Hero” for “crusading to preserve and regenerate Minnesota’s depleted white pine forests.” (Dean Rebuffoni, Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 16, 1996.
What bears do in dens is the least studied part of their lives. When people tried to watch from den entrances, bears often abandoned their dens. In the 1990’s, newly invented webcams offered a solution if they could be installed without causing den abandonments. During 1999-2000 and 2010-2014, bears that trusted Rogers allowed him to install webcams in 8 dens without a single abandonment.
Rogers and his associates archived webcam video and recorded scientific observations while people in 132 countries watched and learned along with them. It was the biggest bear education opportunity of Rogers’ career—perhaps ever. Over 500 schools made the “Den Cams” became part of the daily curriculum. Around the world, students, teachers, scientists, and people from all walks of life changed their attitudes about bears as they watched mother bears go into labor, give birth, and respond to the human-like cries of newborn cubs. Mothers tenderly licked birthing fluids from newborn cubs and protected them from sub-freezing temperatures. Littermates squabbled over nipples until they settled into a peaceful nipple order that would persist until weaning. Mothers licked cubs to stimulate urination and defecation which they ingested. They also ate snow and icicles. They used special latrine areas to do what hibernating bears were thought not to do—urinate and defecate. Bears slept through visits by wildlife intruders or reacted quickly to them. Cubs grew, opened their eyes, began reciprocal tongue-licking, and played together. Most of the observations had never before been reported. Rogers posted daily updates on the internet to answer questions. Den Cam watchers bonded. They grew to love the bears they watched and the area where they lived. They discovered an online voting contest to select America’s favorite park. Den Cam watchers decided it should be the little state park in the study area. That park ended up beating Yellowstone National Park by over 1.5 million votes. The Den Cam watchers were also incredibly generous in raising money for the local food shelf, schools, playgrounds, two state parks, the International Wolf Center, bear education, and bear research. For a day, Den Cams were the number one search topic on Google in the world, beating celebrities and world events.
For science, 14,602 hours of archived video gave a new perspective on black bear denning behavior (Rogers et al. in prep) and will be used for further analysis. It is a beginning. The denning period is still the least observed portion of black bear life.
To observe what other bears are like, Rogers walked among polar bears near Hudson Bay, Canada for several days in 1982. He had no problem. They were not to be the stalkers of humans they are often portrayed to be. To observe brown bears, Rogers spent 11 years (1996-2006) safely leading bear-viewing groups among the world’s largest concentration of brown bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska. Pictures and articles from Katmai are at:
Rogers also educates by giving lectures, creating exhibits for museums, and serving as the guest or scientific consultant for local or national TV and radio programs. Thirteen BBC-TV documentaries about his work each reached 100-250 million viewers worldwide. American audiences viewed those documentaries on Nat Geo Wild, Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, and PBS-TV. Perhaps he educates best by having people learn directly from the bears as with the Den Cams and with his Black Bear Field Courses. The latter safely give participants unforgettable experiences with bears in eight 3-day courses every July and August since 2003 at the Wildlife Research Institute near Ely.
Finally, with his wife Donna Marie (Glass) Rogers, he founded the North American Bear Center. Its mission reflects his life work “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, too, people learn directly from resident bears that live in a large, forested habitat. Exhibits focus on the most commonly asked questions about bears and bear-human relations. Video clips teach the meanings of black bear vocalizations and body language. Each year, some 30 thousand visitors come to the Bear Center and another half million visit its website.
Regarded by many as the Jane Goodall of black bears, Rogers has a Ph.D. in Ecology and Behavioral Biology from the University of Minnesota. For more on his research and accomplishments click 1976 – 1993 USFS Research Scientist.