For a while now, I have considered writing about the controversy surrounding Dr. Lynn Roger’s black bear research and whether collared bears should be protected from hunting. I haven’t done so yet because I haven’t formed a solid opinion, can see both sides of the argument, and am not a bear hunter. But recently, Lynn Rogers made some comments that I can’t ignore.
But first, a little background for anyone who is not familiar with the issue. Dr. Rogers is campaigning hard to make it illegal to shoot radio-collared bears during bear hunting season. He has studied bears for over 40 years and conducts his research through a non-profit organization he founded, the Wildlife Research Institute. He has published numerous scientific articles and other literature on bears, and documentaries such the BBC’s “Bearwalker of the Northwoods” have featured his research. Dr. Rogers has tried to get protection for collared bears in the past. But now, thanks to two of his research bears, Lily and Hope who became internet sensation last winter when Hope’s birth was streamed live on the internet from their den, Dr. Rogers has gained a large following campaigning right along with him.
At first, it might sound like a great idea to protect research bears from hunting. Researching wildlife costs a considerable amount of time and money, and one can learn more from a live bear than a dead bear. However, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has not been supportive of such a law, not because they don’t want hunters to spare the bears they research (which are separate from Dr. Rogers’ research), but because it is possible that a hunter may not see a collar or ear tag on a bear. Currently, it is legal to shoot a collared bear, but the DNR asks hunters not do so. If it were illegal to shoot collared bears, how would you sort out hunters that didn’t see the collar from those that did? If a hunter shot a bear illegally, would he or she destroy the GPS collar along with all the data it contained instead of turning it into the DNR?
Dr. Rogers believes he can solve this problem with his bears by attaching brightly colored ribbons to their radio-collars. Dr. Rogers can do this because he feeds the bears he researchers. These bears have become so accustomed to his presence that they will allow Dr. Rogers to touch them and even place a collar and ribbons around their necks without the need of being tranquilized. Some people consider this research controversial because it begs questions such as: are these really wild bears anymore, could this create problem bears that like human food and aren’t afraid of people, and does this encourage the public to feed bears? In contrast, the MN DNR does not feed bears and generally only visits collared bears in the winter when they are denning.
Dr. Rogers has argued that the bears he researchers must be protected because of their value to science regardless of what the DNR wants to do with their bears. However, he has been criticized for his lack of recent scientific publications. In the last 10 years, Dr. Roger has co-authored one peer-reviewed scientific journal article. He responded in a recent post on Facebook by saying:
One comment we have seen from DNR officials is that we haven’t published much in peer-reviewed journals in recent years. We plan to do that. But it has not been a high priority, and here’s why. We have already senior-authored more peer-reviewed papers than anyone. According to a survey by the Journal of Wildlife Management, the average journal article is thoroughly read by 6 people. More people read the abstracts. We feel the papers we have published have done little to help bears. Sure, they contain facts and figures and expand the knowledge of bear biology, but they do little to change people’s attitudes about bears, and it is people’s attitudes that make the most difference for bears.
Is he saying that they haven’t worked on publishing any research findings in scientific journals because they aren’t that important and almost no one reads them?!
First of all, how can you educate people without facts? Dr. Rogers, himself often cites scientific papers to support his research and causes, including the one he cites to support that scientific articles aren’t all that important. I couldn’t find a reference to this survey (I would love to check it out if someone can point me in the right direction), but I find 6 people awfully low. What does “thoroughly read” mean and when/how was this survey conducted? If I don’t have the necessary background to really understand the methods or results of a scientific paper, I might only read the introduction and discussion. That doesn’t mean I’m not getting more out of it than I would by only reading the abstract.
Second of all, I feel his above statement does not follow the mission of Wildlife Research Institute, which is to:
Conduct scientific research on bears, other wildlife, and their habitat, and provide that information to decision-makers, the scientific community, students, and the public.
Peer-reviewed literature is necessary for wildlife management and conservation. In order for scientific research to be useful for the groups mentioned above, it needs to go through the rigors of peer-review as quality assurance for the methods and assertions of the research. While a scientific article may not be readable by the average person, it informs decision-makers and scientists, and is translated to the public by journalists, professors, educators, and even bloggers.
In his post, Dr. Rogers goes on to talk about how he and his organizations have focused on education and reaching the public instead of publishing research. I think that’s great if he wants to educate the public about bears, but are they really “research bears” if research is not a primary objective? He states how important the detailed data they have collected is to science, bear management and changing people’s attitudes about bears. Then why has he not been sharing it, when the sharing of information is vital to science?
I don’t understand how Dr. Rogers can proclaim how important his research is to science, then turn around and dismiss science and the process. While I still am unsure whether shooting a collared bear should be illegal, I do wish hunters would pass over the collared bears they come across, so that they can continue to benefit science, wildlife management, and education. However, I also do think Dr. Rogers is doing a disservice to science with his recent comments, especially when he has hundreds of thousands of fans.
Please tell me you think. Do you agree or think I am overreacting? How important do you think scientific papers are to conservation and educating the public on wildlife issues? Do you think the shooting of a collared bear should be punishable or just strongly discouraged?