He's Just One of the Bears

Lynn Rogers, says a colleague, sees the forest through black bear-colored glasses

  • Adele Conover
  • Apr 01, 1992
To a wild black bear like Terri, waking up next to U.S. Forest Service biologist Lynn Rogers in the vastness of the Great North Woods is no big deal. Maybe Terri sees Lynn as just another bear--albeit, furless and a little slow on the uptake.

"Sometimes, it's nice to be ignored," says Rogers, a boyish 53-year-old who has spent decades chasing down knowledge about American black bears. "When Terri wakes up and rolls over to find me there," he says of one of his principal study animals, "she just looks right through me." Sort of like an old married couple.

But only the bears ignore Lynn Rogers. Scientific colleagues long ago took note of his career full of firsts, and of his unprecedented ability to get close enough to actually sleep next to free-ranging wild black bears.

Rogers has radio tracked black bears from airplanes, trucks, snowmobiles and canoes. In the coniferous keep of northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest, he has eartagged 350 bears and intensively tracked 128. He has studied individual bears for as long as 21 years and followed the fortunes of bear clans (extended family groups) for up to four generations.

In the mid-1980s, Rogers took the daring step of habituating Minnesota black bears to researchers, a method that has allowed biologists to stay with study animals step by step, noting their every activity. Keeping track of an animal that runs 30 miles an hour and can swim two miles takes some doing. Lynn Rogers, alias the Bearman, has done it time and again.

Rogers long ago made his mark as a bear-research pioneer. He was the first scientist to radio track an entire local community of bears, which yielded the knowledge that American black bear society is matriarchal, with females doling out part of their territory to daughters. In fact, the successful bear mom creates a sort of landed dynasty for her daughters which may last for generations.

Rogers' work on black bear mother-daughter kinship prompted Harvard University sociobiologist E.O. Wilson to rank the research as one of the world's "four major pioneering studies of large mammals." Rogers was also the first bear researcher to take blood samples from winter-dormant wild bears--a procedure that has led to greater understanding of such human ailments as gallstones and circulatory problems.

"Lynn sees the forest through black bear-colored glasses," observes Charles Jonkel, the noted University of Montana bear researcher whose own work dates back to the 1950s. "He takes chances I wouldn't, but then he sees things I wouldn't either."

Rogers insists, however, that anyone can learn to get close to bears like Terri. In recent years, he has trained some 200 volunteers and paid researchers to do just that. "Terri has seen us so many thousands of hours that she never looks at us as a danger when a cub squalls," he says. "She forages, nurses and 'talks' to the cubs, naps and hunts with hardly a glance at a researcher 5 feet away. We're simply part of the landscape."

Rogers grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, tramping the surrounding woods with a fishing pole and a camera, dreaming of being a wildlife biologist. After graduation from junior college, he supported himself for seven years as a mailman. Finally, at age 26, he was able to enroll in Michigan State University. There he came under the wing of Albert "Wild Man" Erikson, famous for his early live-trapping of black bears. As Erikson's graduate student, Rogers learned one of his most important lessons.

"Al showed me that when push came to shove, a bear would rather run away than attack," recalls Rogers. "My first experience came when we were trying to get a blood sample and our drugged bear woke up too fast. Al straddled the bear. I couldn't believe anyone would do that. But the bear broke away. As we cornered it, the bear lunged at Al.

"But Al lunged back! The bear turned to me. Al said, 'Lunge!' I did. To my surprise, the bear ran off." As Rogers sees it, "I was learning things that would help me interpret bears' actions in terms of their fear rather than mine."

During graduate school, Rogers found himself astride other bears as they stormed out of traps, and he collected some stitches. He says of risks he took, "I didn't want to miss getting a radio collar on them." To finance his early work, he turned to national hunting organizations, which had a stake in the black bear's future. A uniquely North American species, black bears are numerous enough to hunt as game animals in 28 states. Continent-wide, their population is estimated at about 450,000. Minnesota alone has some 12,000 black bears.

As his work picked up steam, Rogers trapped hundreds of Minnesota bears in barrel traps--two oil drums welded end-to-end and baited with beef fat. After in bears with a tranquilizer, he fitted them with radio collars. With an antenna and receiver, Rogers could find his bears at high noon in summer or in the snow-blanketed hush of their winter dens.

From thousands of electronically determined locations, outlines of bear territories emerged--a picture of North Woods ursine society. Rogers documented that the females he tracked had definite territories (measuring 2 to 6 square miles) which they defended fiercely against other females. Male black bears roamed larger home ranges of 20 to 60 (or more) square miles--too great an area to defend. Family relations came into focus as Rogers tracked mother bears shifting territorial boundaries to accommodate offspring.

The radio signals sometimes marked friction in the bear world. "While flying in an airplane, I'd pick up on a female invading another female's territory, and I'd watch to see what happened," says Rogers. "I'd see the resident bear chase the intruder back to its territory. Sometimes the bears would fight. One bear threw an intruder out of a tree to its death."

Summer radio tracking taught Rogers where black bears went in the woods and with whom they associated. But he rarely saw one of the secretive mammals up close until he began paying regular visits inside winter dens. (Black bears go into underground dens for a period of dormancy that may last seven months in places like Alaska; in Florida, they may not den at all.)

Inspecting dens, Rogers was able to change bears' radio-collar batteries. He measured heart rates and body temperatures of dormant animals, and learned which females had produced cubs.

More than once, he found himself popping backwards out of a den, propelled by an awakening bear's lunge. He learned to listen at the den entrance for a telltale warning--the loud thump of an awake bear's heartbeat. "When a bear is asleep its heartbeat is so low [eight beats a minute in the North Country] you can't hear it," says Rogers. "Once I pressed my ear against a bear's chest and suddenly heartbeats were resounding, filling the den. As the bear lifted her head, I was retreating fast, my own heart racing.

"It wasn't until I was outside the den that I was sure the 175 heartbeats a minute were hers--loud and strong."

Assessing bear well-being in winter dens and radio tracking them in summer provided patterns of ursine existence, but few details. "I still didn't know what they were actually doing," says Rogers, "or what was really important to bears in the forest. From airplanes, when we'd pinpoint a bear in a swath of vast forest, was it just passing through? Was it gorging on some delicacy?"

Rogers' curiosity led him to tailor his work in the tradition of Dian Fossey, the celebrated American researcher who spent years in the forests of Rwanda, studying mountain gorillas by living among them. Only by getting close to his wild subjects--and sticking close--would Rogers understand everyday details of bear life.

He began habituating bears to the near presence of researchers in the summer of 1985, when natural food supplies in the Superior National Forest were unusually low "At first, we fed the bears to get close to them," explains Rogers. "Everyone always says, 'Don't feed the bears,' but in our case we wanted to get to know them."

Nine hungry wild bears became regular visitors at Kawishiwi Lab, the collection of cabins that is Rogers' base in the national forest. The scientist put food on a bear-sized scale just outside his lab, so bears would, in essence, weigh themselves. When bears were feeding, he inched closer and closer to read their weights. Then he took the next step--walking with them.

"The first time I tried walking with one of the regulars, he lunged at me, and I backed off," says Rogers. "I thought he was trying to tell me something, so I left him alone. I hadn't learned one thing: Bears are like gorillas; they'll bluff you into giving them some room, but all that bluster almost never ends in contact."

Soon, Rogers and his technician, Greg Wilker, radio collared three young female bears in hopes of getting them to accept the 24-hour presence of human observers. For nearly two months, the men slogged through alder thickets, swamps, blow-downs and thick woods, following the animals and spelling each other in 24-and 48-hour watches. They called to the bears by name and--enduring nervous slaps--offered treats of beef fat. The two men stood up to hundreds of bluff charges as bear and human tested each other. One of the three bears undergoing habituation was Terri.

"It became a matter of mutual trust," says Rogers. "I'd be with Terri all day in the woods. At dark, she'd settle down at the base of a white pine, a favorite bear tree, which she used as a daycare center and base camp. Eventually she'd fall asleep and I would too--or try to."

One night after Terri seemed settled and her cubs were nursing, Rogers pulled out his sleeping bag. "Suddenly Terri jumped up, agitated," he remembers. "Why was she upset? I couldn't hear anything.

"She sent the cubs up the pine. She huffed a warning, then moaned in fear. BAM! She slapped the tree trunk and the ground in warning. Bears will tell you to give them some room if they hear a strange noise. But even with my rustlings and presence, Terri ignored me while she concentrated on something inaudible to me. I felt privileged." Finally, says Rogers, the mother bear calmed down a bit. "She retrieved the cubs and we all rested fitfully through the night to the sound of distant wolves."

Getting that close to animals in the wild was a biologist's dream. "I had 20 years of questions stored up about how bears live, and now I was finally beginning to answer them," says Rogers.

Questions, for example, about the black-bear diet. Discovering what bears eat in the wild is crucial to management of their habitat. Collecting scat, or excrement, in a Baggie is the usual starting point in such research. Sometimes Rogers and his teams collect and weigh all the droppings left by one bear in a 24-hour watch, to estimate how much the bear ate.

But Rogers also observes what goes into his bears. He has learned, for example, that succulent aquatic vegetation and ant pupae (neither of which always shows up in scat) are major foods for his study animals. "By watching Terri, we've found that she doesn't just eat an occasional ant but averages 160 colonies of ant pupae daily."

Terri leaves few food sources untapped. One summer, she took her cubs some 40 miles beyond her territory to gorge in a hazelnut stand. After cleaning out most of the hazelnuts, she turned to the caches of resident red squirrels. Much to the rodents' dismay, Terri and the kids downed roughly 4,000 hazelnuts a day.

In the midst of such feeding sprees, Terri and her cubs barely seem to notice Rogers and his team. "We've learned how to behave with good bear manners," says Rogers. "We don't invade the invisible 6-foot space ahead of a feeding bear." Except with Gerry, Terri's adopted daughter. "When Gerry tears up an ant log, we can put our nose right next to her and smell the formic-acid defense the ants use to zap predators," says Rogers. "And we don't get the nips and swipes other bears would give us for such an intrusion."

Such cheek-by-jowl togetherness with a wild animal raises questions. Is this really wild bear behavior? Does Rogers' close relationship with bears dim that wild light that draws us to them?

Rogers believes plenty of mystery remains. "What is needed is to learn what black bears are really like," he says, "so we can hold a more realistic image of this often-misrepresented animal." Besides, says Rogers, the behavior of his habituated bears "turns out to be no different from what we observed with over 100 animals that we radio tracked from airplanes and trucks. They use the same size area, have the same daily activity patterns and have the same general diet that we found earlier. We're now able to fill in the critical details that forest managers need to provide bear habitat."

A more worrisome question is whether, by habituating bears to people, Rogers is signing their death warrant. Can a bear like Gerry distinguish between a researcher and a shooter during hunting season?

She may not have to. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forbids hunting in 27 square miles of forest in and around Rogers' study area, to assure a continuing flow of information from his bears. As for bears that stray from the protected area, volunteers walk with the animals each fall, explaining to hunters they encounter that the bears are part of a valuable study. As a result, Rogers' bears live longer on average than bears in hunted populations.

Not all researchers are willing to habituate bears. "It wouldn't be ethical in my study area with its proximity to three cities," says North Carolina bear scientist Roger Powell. "It's bad enough for radio= collared bears here now with just the poachers." In fact, Powell's radio tracking stopped in 1987 when--to save his research animals--he removed their collars. Poachers had been keying in on bear radio frequencies.

Rogers worries less about poaching than about so-called nuisance-bear killings--bears reported wandering through a backyard or raiding a garbage can and shot. "This problem is worse now as people move into bear country," says the scientist. "We need to know how human residents and campers can coexist better with bears. The key lies in promoting tolerance on the part of people toward bears." And perhaps in teaching some bears to steer clear of people.

Gerry, a wild orphan cub, is a case in point. Sent to Rogers by a Michigan game warden after her mother was killed, the then 12-week-old cub was taken to Terri in the forest. The adoption went without a hitch. "As soon as she heard Gerry squalling," says Rogers, "Terri grabbed her."

Gerry adjusted to her new family. She denned up with them in winter and, come spring, moved into her own "starter" territory under Terri's watchful eye. But Gerry's territory encompassed more than forest. It included vacation cabins and a state campground. When the bear nosed around cabins and garbage, Rogers explained to campers and local residents that she could easily be shooed away by throwing rocks and yelling at her.

"Gerry's value is that she has settled where there are people," says Rogers. "When she supplements her wild diet with garbage or a camper's bacon, she shows us a problem common across the country. She can also show us one of the most important things we need to know about bears--how to teach nuisance bears to leave humans and their garbage alone."

Among teaching tools Rogers is testing are electric-shock collars of the kind sometimes used in dog training. Not long ago, when the scientist received his first shipment of collars at Kawishiwi, the UPS man mentioned that a nuisance bear had just been shot while pawing through garbage in nearby Ely. Soon Rogers was jolting himself with the collar around his own neck, explaining "I just want to test how it might feel to the bears."

Quickly collaring Gerry, Rogers then set her up for her first lesson in avoiding humans. He placed irresistible goodies just inside his open laboratory door. Gerry went for the bait, and Rogers sent a jolt of current through her collar. After being shocked, Gerry behaved like a conflicted dieter. She repeatedly opened the lab door and then banged it shut. "I knew from my own experience that it was more frightening to Gerry than painful," Rogers said at the time. "But if this method works, it could save the lives of Gerry and other bears living around people."

The training was repeated when Gerry turned to a picnic table Rogers had piled with food. After a few jolts, she turned her back on the table and its bounty. Hungry, but nobody's fool, she headed for a nearby, high-bush cranberry laden with fruit.

Rogers, normally a plain-spoken man, momentarily forgot his aversion to scientific jargon. "See how hyperphagic she is," he said of Gerry's relentless pre-denning hunger. "And she's eating wild foods."

Thanks to the Bearman, Gerry was learning a life-or-death lesson. With the woods getting crowded with people, wise little bears stay as wild as they can be.

Washington, D.C., writer Adele Cooper formerly worked as a researcher with Lynn Rogers. She returned to Minnesota to interview him for this article.

Get Involved

Where We Work

More than one-third of U.S. fish and wildlife species are at risk of extinction in the coming decades. We're on the ground in seven regions across the country, collaborating with 52 state and territory affiliates to reverse the crisis and ensure wildlife thrive.

Learn More
Regional Centers and Affiliates