This is a research commentary in response to “reactions” and “no action” from public officials to a request by Dr. Lynn Roger for protection for WRI collared- with-ribbons research bears from being hunted in St. Louis County,MN. These bears have a higher incidence of mortality because it is legal to hunt radio-collared animals in the state of Minnesota. Statistically and for this issue I am speaking of thirteen animals out of an estimated 11,000 or more black bears in Minnesota. Dr. Garshelis, leading bear biologist for the DNR in 2008 explained in a report “the rate of mortality of collared-bears is “not sustainable” population-wide and has documented a high harvest rate of collared bears since 2003”. For this report, I believe he speaks generally of radio-collared bears in MN and includes those collared by the DNR. This report, Ecology and Population Dynamics of Black Bears in Minnesota, is available to the public and is posted on the Internet and is public information. For a number of years, the DNR has repeatedly (verbally and in published documents) discouraged the “harvesting” of radio-collared bears. Unfortunately, these attempts and verbal recommendations to prevent the harvesting of these animals have proved inadequate. For a number of reasons stated in the paragraphs below, immediate and enforceable legal steps with sanctions need to be implemented to ensure the health and safety of the bears and all the people involved with these important research animals.
The recent death of Dr. Rogers’ Sarah Bear has brought to light an issue that has needed to be addressed for a long time. It is an issue that has motivated a significant amount of unjust negative criticism for this kind of research and sheds a negative light on the WRI research in general which unnecessarily makes the grant application and permit process more difficult. Unfortunately, certain public officials and local media companies in Minnesota are adding fuel to this fire by openly criticizing Dr. Rogers’ methods. When all is said and done, the kind of observational study method of research Dr. Rogers’ uses provides a substantial amount of data and important information to a variety of audiences including ethologist, ecologists, wildlife biologists, veterinarians, educators and a host of different scientifically-based fields related to animals, in addition to those that study human and animal interaction. Probably, the two most famous researchers that have or have had similar research methods include Jane Goodall with a resume that touts 50 years of study of chimpanzees and the late Dian Fossy and her study of mountain gorillas. In the distant and recent past, state officials have made comments to the media which are biased, only half true or just plain laughable just to sway public opinion in their favor. What is dismissed or ignored is the fact there are numerous supporters both of the research and for protection of these bears in St. Louis County, MN. Plus, both Dr. Rogers’ who is an accomplished and prolific writer with numerous publications, and Sue Mansfield are both highly respected by their peers.
Unfortunately, parallel to biased comments by public officials, “critics” from the general public are speaking out against Dr. Rogers and the research in the press and the Internet. Many commenters have been downright “ugly” and vehement in voicing their disdain; they are also misinforming readers by misrepresenting the research while doing their best to discredit the value of the information and the reputations of both researchers. It is apparent from the present Internet buzz, a number of individuals had made a conscious plan and carried out the “hunting” and death of Sarah bear. One person went so far as to say, “the shooting of this bear was to send a message....”and there is a similar tone of “style” that includes “harsh language and untruths” meant to inflame and bully on several websites across the Internet. Most of the rhetoric shows anger directed towards specific individuals and/or the entire group of “donors” and “volunteer fundraisers and supporters” in the Lily community. In recent weeks, these comments have been directed at their “good deeds” including helping to secure a “sizable” grant for a State Park in Ely, MN and promoting companies important to the state and locals economies such as Coca Cola, General Mills and Pepsi. So at this point, one needs to ask, why the negativity from state officials and why do they insist on antagonizing the public by making false statements that only serve to increase the level of these types of harrassments?
To find a reasonable answer to this question, one only needs to review a little history about recent politics in Minnesota and provide a little background of the “mining industry” which is making attempts to get a stronger foothold in the Ely area. In recent years, just like many rural towns, the economy downturn has had a negative impact on jobs and quality of life in this hurting community. It is estimated that an increase in industrial non-ferrous mining will bring a substantial increase in the amount of revenue and jobs to the state overall and an influx to the local economies as well. On the other hand, this kind of mining causes environmental damage with significant environmental costs that may be felt more at the local level and may include rising health care expenditures and secondary costs that are unpredictable, are unknown or under-estimated and may entail possible heavy financial penalties. Admittedly, the companies’ development plans include reimbursement for environmental damage if they can remain financially solvent which if history repeats itself in Minnesota, they may not! In the event of a hazardous spill, damage reimbursement dollars can never replace the impacts such as damages to the environment that may take decades or never recover and will never adequately address emotional or physical suffering from potential serious permanent injury or death or the loss of recreational areas or the disruptions in habitats that will be permanent or last longer than most peoples’ lifetime. So far, there have been few positive and mostly discouraging reports that mine damages can be contained at a level that is “minimal”. Recently, the EPA sent a “damming” report to developers of a planned mine south of Ely that says there is “no proof” “no proof” that the project will not result in water contamination. Critics argue that important factors were left out of this report, but the general consensus amongst experts is that water contamination from the PolyMet and other proposed mines is inevitable. All of these events have occurred under the governance and leadership of Tim Pawlenty who had aspirations for the vice-presidency bid in the last presidential election and is currently trying to secure a Republican bid for the next presidential election. Of course, there are substantial benefits of public endorsements from “larger industries” because they have large memberships with lots of voters and financial backing and therefore, lobbying power. Also under Pawlenty, there has been evidence of governmental mismanagement and poor supervision including a spending scandal in the Department of Natural Resources and a supposed purposeful one-year delay in the release of data that shows a doubling of the incidence rate of cancer in taconite Iron Range miners from 1997 to 2005 compared to the report for the previous nine years. Reportedly, many that understand Minnesota politics believe this “suppression” of information was a political move.
So what does this all have to do with the bears you ask? Simple, it all comes down to the health and safety of the environment and in the end, who has “motivation” to advocate a specific political agenda that will have economic benefits but at substantial costs to public health and the health of the environment. There is a lot of history in relation to these study bears and the community that makes up part of their territory. A few years back, there were issues with a bear named Solo that eventually was “removed as a nuisance” from the Eagle’s Nest community to Michigan where she eventually died. In my personal opinion, there is merit in what Sue Mansfield said at the time, “something had changed at the Eagle’s Nest Isthmus to attract the animal.” Generally, animals do not acutely change their behaviors unless “lured” to do so and in this case, it is obvious that something motivated the bear to do so. The level and lack of cooperation from public officials on this issue and others and some of the media and certain members of the community who were so outspoken about it, leads one to suspect there is a perceived benefit from these “bear removals” and the negative publicity. Lately, I expect these perceived “benefits” have taken a “big hit” with the influx of “oneness and support” for bear education, the WRI and the NABC by the “Lily Community” and may reflect some of the most recent elevations in “ugly”chatter and the death of Sarah bear!
Mining operations utilize a significant amount of resources including water in many cases, produce a
significant amount of wastes even before the real operations begin and as noted above, there is a very high
risk for water contamination that may kill fish and fauna. Unfortunately, this poses a potential problem for mining developers because Dr. Rogers will be the first to become aware of potential public health and environmental hazards from pollution. Importantly, this is a consequence of the specific nature of his research methods which includes bio-monitoring and the ability for the researchers to “walk with” and “follow the bears for long distances” in their natural habitat or “over hill and over dale” as I like to say! Any environmental or biological scientist can tell you the first signs of environmental damages are often first observed in effected wildlife, flora and fauna. From mining operations, specific pollutants that are expected include contamination from heavy metals and “noxious” odors. Studies have demonstrated exposures and both can lead to changes in behavior from neuro-inflammatory responses that effect cognition and instinct and in animals these changes may impact navigation and possibly increase or decrease expressions of fear and aggression. These same pollutants from mine sites which contaminate the purity of the natural food and water supply are known to potentially lead to epigenetic changes that can be passed to offspring for generations.
Animal studies in both bears and wolves demonstrate their superior sense of smell, intelligence and an “olfactory range” of several miles. Some reports say the bear’s olfactory capability has up to a 20 mile range and therefore their “bear scent sense” would include most of the area of mining interests near Ely. (This is at least as the crow flies and starting at different points.) For more background health information taken from polar bears studies for example, it says that “the insidious danger to many species comes incrementally, through the food web. Levels of mercury, other heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) generated by industrial processes in southern latitudes are turning up in tissue samples of most arctic species, including polar bears. They are particularly vulnerable because of their reproductive biology and their place at the top of the arctic food web. On the other hand, adult females are able to offload some of these high concentrations of toxins to their offspring,“thereby, reducing their risks from exposures but increasing the risks in their cubs.” This problem of course would cause worry for the black bear researcher. Another problem is mining pollution would be comparable for metals but different because, as far as I am aware, there would be little or no contamination from persistent chemicals (POPS). However, it is also impossible to know what pollutants are already “lurking” in those environments. The same author from the resource above explains, “contaminants enter the web through precipitation tainted by winds blowing from the industrialized south” and this would closely mimic the particulate dust from waste blowing around and the settling of metal dust on drying beds and plants from these industrial sites. In the polar region, “the chemicals are first ingested by the smallest organisms on the tundra and in the water, and then passed to successively higher trophic levels.” (Hrynyshyn)
Both wolves and bears are near the tops of their food chain and have shared scavenging activities and therefore, they have an elevated risk for effects of exposure from mining waste particulates and volatile odors. Ammonia, a common waste pollutant from mining interacts well with other airborne gases, especially sulfates and nitrates, to produce particulate matter and can have a number of irritating effects including exciting chronic immune responses. (Unknown) In humans, exposure to particulate matter (PM) has been associated with a variety of health conditions including chronic inflammation and respiratory diseases such as allergies and asthma and more recently, implicated in diabetes and autoimmune-type diseases. Veterinarians have identified many commonly known chronic environmentally-induced diseases in domestic animals but research of their existence and prevalence data is very limited in wild animals for a number of different reasons. Chronic exposure to irritants like ammonia, sulfur and other volatiles from hazard sites like mines and their waste sites may modulate and precipitate unwanted behaviors in the different species including the lynx, the bears, the raptors and the wolf populations that inhabit the area. Curiously, this was not addressed in a report of the impact of these mines on wildlife which I read that was posted on the Internet. Generally, the combination of the health effects of metals and volatiles augment one another and the effects of the will be greater compared to the effects of each individually. Improper and unorganized feeding also may incite important and unsafe changes of behavior in a similar physiological manner. From most accounts, it is impossible to predict the extent of these kinds of environmental influences on genetic change because knowledge of specific epigenetic changes are limited for all species and even more so for wildlife. It also appears, there are a number of factors that influence epigenetic change and these may not be the same in similar or different environments and are more than likely, species specific.
Now I turn my attention away from the environmental aspects for a need to protect these bears to the recent comments made by state officials published in an online article from TwinCities.com. In this article, DNR Commissioner Holsten was quoted as saying he doubted he would rule for a “protection order for Rogers’s bears because it is not the type of research they protect because it involves social interactions between bears and humans.” Similarly, his description at this time, of the depth of research performed by Dr. Rogers and Sue Mansfield was very short-sighted and therefore, inaccurate. I am sure many of Dr. Rogers and Sue Mansfield’s peers would argue the Commissioner made an extremely simple and very limited assessment of both the kinds of information and data that is collected and their “professional” activities and accomplishments. Actually, the research of both Dr. Rogers and Sue Mansfield is quite involved, is labor, expense and time intensive and includes activities generally performed by biologists, animal ecologists and animal behaviorists. Their job description includes participating in the active scientific study of everything animals do and try to determine the biological and psychological motivations and significance for doing them. This involves investigating the relationship of animals to their environment, as well as to other organisms and not just humans and includes, but is not limited to how animals find and defend resources, avoid predators, choose mates and reproduce and care for their young. On the WRI website there is a complete list of research areas which Dr. Rogers and Ms. Mansfield are currently engaged in.
In his statement, the DNR Commissioner explains the DNR is not motivated to “offer protection because the research is limited to social research between bears and humans” because they are not all inclusive and do not reflect the interests of the sportsman (ie. hunters). Technically, there is only one area that provides details about the research of the interactions of bears and humans on the WRI research activities list. All the other areas mentioned are bear related and include land tenure and social systems of bears, bear communication, daily and seasonal travel patterns, food and weight, reproduction, hibernation, care and development of cubs, play behavior, morphology and physiology of bears, bear signs, habitat, responses to environmental factors, and factors that effect research methods including the benefits of using different technology for collecting data. These are all necessary for bear education and for the understanding of it by the general public, wildlife-career oriented students and the sportsman. To restate, Holsten argues the DNR does not “protect social research on human and bear interaction.” In response, this could partly explain the escalating numbers of conflicts between people and bears in Minnesota because the DNR is not adequately addressing or educating the public about “bear preventive” measures. From his own comments and with further explanation on the WRI website, the DNR Commissioner explains he does not support their role in areas of the research which includes “educating the public so they better understand bear behavior, doesn’t support researching elements that may increase conflict between humans and bears or research that analyzes, describes and provides data into the human behaviors and cultural factors that increase “nuisance” behaviors, and doesn’t support research on factors that contribute to bear attacks, garbage and odor containment, etc.” (Rogers) All I have to got to say to this is, WHY NOT!? Obviously, he really doesn’t understand much of what Rogers’ research is about even though he is critical of it in public statements or maybe he does understand it and if he does, maybe he needs to publicly define what “ is the DNR’s role is in terms of bear education and then maybe redefine it!” I could place a bet, the majority of the public are open to more education, if it will reduce property loss and risk of injury and mortality! It is quite clear, there is very little representation for public concerns, at least in these concerns with the DNR. If he is a pubic representative, then why isn’t he addressing the needs of his public?
In the same article, DNR Biologist, Dr. Garshelis made several interesting comments including “he doesn’t think Rogers’ bears should get special protection. Further, he says, “by giving them (meaning Dr. Rogers’ bears) legal protection and not ours, it gives the perception that those bears are more important. Lynn (Dr. Rogers) might think that and people might believe that, but I do not think that.” From my perspective, I don’t believe Dr. Rogers ever meant to exclude other radio-collared bears, but does have a right as a business manager to focus his attentions and resources on “WRI” collared-with-ribbons research bears. Whatever regulations the DNR puts in place for their own collared bears, it really up to them anyway! All in all and from this latest interview with DNR representatives, it appears this interview like so many others in the past, sets the stage for the public and media to receive more incorrect information and misrepresentation of the research. Unfortunately, a lot of it the public is getting directly from DNR officials which only adds to the “half-truths” that are popping up in the media! So what is the intent behind all of this misinformation? Is it political, most definitely! Personally I feel the level at which the DNR is criticizing Dr. Rogers’ work and putting his bears in the middle , is NOT RIGHT and NOT FAIR! In this case, public officials should let the research explain the data and leave it at that.... and stop using the bears as political scapegoats and turning them into “objects” to force a political agenda!
The critical question here is why the DNR obviously supports mining development in the Ely area and ignores the potential and obvious benefits of Dr. Rogers research. Those bears, just by being bears, are “instruments” to monitor the health of areas that may be negatively affected by environmental damage. This is true, even with the bad data the mining operations are providing and bad environmental reports they have been receiving from the EPA. This is in addition to the fact that the mining industry carries a very high risk for injury and disability. In any case, with allowance and no interference for continued study and research of these bears, there is opportunity for Dr. Rogers to offer a relatively good and cost-effective mechanism for habitat surveillance and in the case of an “mine event” he may be the first to identify early the environmental impact. Importantly, there is no doubt in my mind, both researchers would report anything that didn’t seem quite right!
In conclusion, it is important to consider taking immediate steps and legislation to see these animals are kept
safe and at this point, it is not just the animals that are now in harms way. I hope the preceeding paragraphs has made it more clear about what really underlies the ridicule and reservations about this valuable research
and the real issue needs more consideration by a number of people in different agencies in Minnesota government. I hope I have expressed the point that the “real” issues here have nothing to do with preventing
the right to hunt, nor is it just about the bears but mostly about whether the safety of people and their pets, the environment and wildlife is more important than the games public officials’ play with their politics.
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