Minnesota Man Told Hands Off the Bears

     
ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – The Minnesota “man who walks with bears” needs state permission to continue his radio-collar tracking of the animals, the state Court of Appeals ruled.
     The decision announced Tuesday upheld the non-renewal of Dr. Lynn Rogers’ permit to track North American black bears in a rural area in the northern tier of the state.
     Rogers had contended that his activities were carried out strictly for biological study. But according to the court, placing tracking collars on bears for monitoring purposes is constructive possession.
     “[W]e are persuaded that feeding a bear and habituating it in order to keep it in one place while a radio collar is affixed to it is a significant form of exerting control over the animal,” Judge John R. Rodenberg wrote.
     Rogers can, however, continue to install and monitor cameras placed in bears’ dens, the court said.
     Rogers, who operates the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely, Minn., has been studying bears since 1967. He moved to his current location to complete a study for his Ph.D in 1969, according to the institute’s website.
     Part of Rogers’ ongoing research, the opinion states, involves “habituating” the bears to human contact by feeding and interacting with them so they no longer notice his presence and he can study them.
     Rodenberg wrote that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources first discovered Rogers had placed a tracking collar on a bear in 1999. After it informed him this activity required a permit, he obtained and held one consistently through June 2013, the court documents said.
     By that time, the bears’ habituation was a public safety concern, according to the opinion. Authorities received complaints from local residents of bears that refused to leave private and public property, and one officer shot and killed a bear when it did not respond to attempts to scare it off.
     “A cabin owner reported that, while watching television, he noticed a collared bear pressed against his window, ‘two feet from his head,'” the opinion states. “A conservation officer reported that a collared bear (accompanied by two other bears) ‘walked within four feet of the officer, stood up on her hind legs and put her left paw on [the officer’s] gun belt'” (parentheses and brackets in original).
     Rogers received nuisance citations for the complaints and the Department of Natural Resources successfully recommended non-renewal of his permit.
     In the ensuing court challenge, Rogers argued he did not need a permit to place the collars on bears as doing so constituted neither “taking” nor “possession,” a position with which a judge and commissioner each disagreed.
     Rogers argued possession requires “confinement, capture, or removal from nature,” which he did not do, instead only collaring, handling and feeding bears who did not object.
     The collar, state regulators argued, allowed Rogers to exercise control over the bears, not only briefly as it was being attached but in the long run as it allowed him to monitor their locations, the opinion states.
     The appeals court deferred to the regulators’ interpretation of “possession” because it is reasonable and no state precedent exists on the matter, Rodenberg writes.
     Further, Rogers’ arguments that this interpretation of the law renders is “unconstitutionally vague” does not apply in this case, as he had notice of the requirements of the law before engaging in the subject behavior, according to the opinion.
     In a press release on the Wildlife Research Institute’s website, Rogers focused on the legality of using den cameras without a permit, including at the end the court’s opinion on collaring as possession.
     “Therefore, Dr. Rogers is considering whether to re-apply for a permit to radio collar bears, or appeal this narrow legal issue to the Minnesota Supreme Court,” it states.
     Neither the Department of Natural Resources nor the Wildlife Research Institute responded immediately to requests for comment.