Before there was a North American Bear Center in Ely, Minn., there was Dr. Lynn Rogers and his curiosity.

That curiosity drove him to go out in the Midwest forests to walk with wild black bears, an activity he has done for more than 50 years. He’s talked to bears, sat by bears, and visited bears in their dens. Knowing that about him makes it hard to believe he grew up seriously afraid of bears.

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“I grew up in a nature-loving family,” Rogers said. “I was intrigued by birds, especially the birds that came to a mulberry tree outside my bedroom window. I learned all the birds that came there by the time I was in first grade.”

But he also heard about another side of nature -- snakes, snapping turtles, and bees -- things that could hurt human beings.

“I tried extra hard to get to know them,” he said. “I caught many snakes. I put on a mask and flippers and would swim along the dropoff in lakes and see a muddy, stirred up trail. That was a snapping turtle heading off to safety. I would take a breath and go down and go after them. I could swim fast with the flippers on, and I would catch them by the tail. I learned that they can strike back, but only two-thirds the length of their shell. That’s all their neck will reach, so I learned how to be safe with them.”

Dr. Lynn Rogers spent 50 years studying bears in northern Minnesota and published several peer-reviewed articles that established many of the standards for black bear research. Photo courtesy of Lynn Rogers
Dr. Lynn Rogers spent 50 years studying bears in northern Minnesota and published several peer-reviewed articles that established many of the standards for black bear research. Photo courtesy of Lynn Rogers

He learned how to find a bee in a hollyhock flower and put his hands around it, feeling the bee buzzing inside. He never got stung.

He also heard about bears.

He stayed interested in wildlife, and after high school, he worked seven years as a mailman to earn money for college. When he entered Michigan State University, that early interest in bears resurfaced. He got a summer job capturing bears and tagging their ears.

“I just went crazy with it,” Rogers said. “I caught as many bears in a month as they had ever caught in a year.”

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His work caught the attention of Albert W. Erickson, a professor at the University of Minnesota and the world’s leading authority on black bear research. Erickson came to Michigan and went with Rogers into the field to study bears.

“We worked together for a week, and I peppered the poor guy with questions the whole time,” Rogers said with a laugh. “In the end, he invited me to come to the University of Minnesota to be his graduate student and do Minnesota’s first black bear field study. What an opportunity. It became my life’s work.”

Initially, Rogers research was similar to other bear studies. He trapped bears, tranquilized them, put radio collars on them, and then tracked them from a distance. The more he worked with bears, the more he wanted to be closer to them, to understand their behaviors. He decided to take a trust approach, much like Dr. Jane Goodall did with chimpanzees.

“When I started interpreting bear behavior in terms of their fear rather than my fear, I saw a different animal,” Rogers said. “I found out I could safely accompany wild bears including mothers and cubs, day or night. I’ve got decades of experience doing that. I was never attacked.”

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Most early bear studies were population research, so that agencies could manage hunting better. Rogers knew that was important, but he wanted to do research using a different methodology. In 1976, the U.S. Forest Service created a research scientist position and gave the job to Rogers, allowing him “unusual freedom to do innovative research,” he explained.

“You have to get to know the bears, get accepted by them, trusted, ignored, and then you can start learning all the details about their behavior, ecology, and bear-human relations,” he said. “So much of that turned out to be the opposite of what I had grown up believing and which most people across the country still believe, including wildlife managers.”

To do this, he approached the bears slowly. He always talked to them in what he called the “familiar sing-song voice of mine.” If he didn’t talk to them, if he tried to approach silently, they disappeared.

“If I came talking, they would come to me,” he said. “Their ears are their main line of defense. Smell only works in one direction, and sight in the forest is limited with all the trees and brush. Hearing is their first line of alertness to danger. That’s what makes them nervous on a windy day, because the whole forest is rustling.”

It took time to develop the trust, but eventually the bears got used to him and started to ignore him. That’s when he could sit with them, watch them, and record a constant stream of data about their daily behaviors.

His close contact with bears eventually led him to try touching them. He was slapped and nipped a few times. A couple of bears charged him, but none ever hurt him. He was afraid that touching them created anxiety, but he learned one more lesson.

“I found that touch is the universal language,” he said. “Once they got past that initial anxiety, that let me eliminate traps and tranquilizers. I could put radio collars on them just based on trust.”

That led to another breakthrough. Researchers had trouble learning about bear den behavior, because approaching a den often resulted in the bear abandoning the den. In the 1990s, when webcams became popular, Rogers found he could enter a den of a bear he knew well, install a camera, and not disturb the bear. He and other researchers were able to watch the bears and learn about behavior in the den. The video was also sent out to people in 132 countries, and over 500 schools watched the webcams as part of their classroom curriculum.

Rogers, who founded the North American Bear Center in 2007, had grown up with a fear of bears, caused by stories in hunting magazines and the fierce, taxidermied snarls on bear heads mounted on walls in museums. He called that look “uncharacteristic.”

He said, “There are so many misconceptions about bears. My goal is to have people know the truth about bears. I put myself on the line to learn the truth.”

Bear numbers

The average black bear is approximately 4 to 7 feet from nose to tail, and 2 to 3 feet high at the withers.

Wild male black bears of breeding age usually weigh 125 and 500 pounds, depending upon age, season, and food. Wild females usually weigh between 90 and 300 pounds.

Wisconsin is home to a thriving black bear population estimated at more than 24,000 bears. The black bear's primary range is located in the far northern third of the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Due to a growing population, bears are becoming much more common in the lower two-thirds of the state than ever before.

Minnesota’s population of black bears is estimated at 15,000, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.