The black bear whisperer

With nothing more than a handful of nuts and a deep-rooted faith in the black bears he studies, biologist Lynn Rogers is slowly changing America’s views of a feared carnivore.

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Black bears and the bear whisperer article spread

With nothing more than a handful of nuts and a deep-rooted faith in the black bears he studies, Lynn Rogers is slowly changing America’s views of a feared carnivore. Ted Oakes tells his astonishing story.

 
OK, I’ll admit it – I’m scared. I’ve been walking for two hours through a spooky forest in northern Minnesota with bear biologist Dr Lynn Rogers, following the beeping radio signal of a female black bear and her three cubs. It’s a hot July morning and the bugs are beginning to hit us hard.
 
Lynn resembles the bears he studies. His huge frame moves silently through the forest, aided by hands as large as paws. As he listens to the bear’s signal with an antenna, he grunts and murmurs in a deep, gravelly voice.
 
The mother bear we’ve been following has stopped moving away. Now her signal is getting stronger. Lynn smiles, “She’s coming to us.” The beeps grow louder, like in the film Alien.
 
You have been warned
 
As a kid growing up in Canada, I was often firmly told “Never approach a mother bear with cubs.” And, “A bear that loses its fear of humans is dangerous.” All of these dire warnings come flooding back to me as the animal closes in on us…
 
“Hey bear! It’s me, bear,” Lynn calls. Then he whispers, “She’s close, real close.” The mother bear breaks cover and heads directly for us… 40m, 25m, 10m. Before I can react, she’s right at our feet.
 
I’ve seen many bears, but none have stood before me like this. Trust me, it feels strange. Everything I think I know about bears tells me that this is wrong and potentially dangerous. Black bears can and do kill people. This cannot be safe.
 
A peace offering
 
Lynn smiles and reaches into his pocket, pulling out a handful of nuts and offering them to June, a bear he’s been following for several years. She takes the nuts from his palm with a comically long tongue – more politely than any dog.
 
Her three cubs emerge from the trees and cluster around us, pawing at his hand for nuts. When Lynn’s supplies run out, they begin ripping open a log to search for ants, and eventually the whole family settles down, ignoring us as they begin foraging.
 
It seems unbelievable, but these bears are totally wild and have never known captivity.
 
Scare stories
 
Lynn’s story is remarkable. He grew up in what Midwesterners call the ‘Northwoods’ – a huge band of mixed forest that sweeps across the northern states of the USA. As a child he also heard many scary stories about bears, but as he spent more time outside he began to question these tales.
 
Animals that had a reputation for being dangerous ran away from him, while gentler ones could be tempted to take treats from his hand. These early experiences made a lasting impression and he decided to become a bear biologist.
 
When Lynn began studying bears for the US Forest Service 40 years ago, little was known about their biology. Unlike their polar and grizzly cousins, black bears prefer dense forest and so are hard to observe in the wild.
 
Getting closer
 
Starting his research in the late 1960s, Lynn did what all other bear scientists did: he tranquilised the animals at their dens or in traps and fitted them with radio-collars. Once a bear was collared, the only data that Lynn could collect, via an aircraft or vehicle, was its position. The bears would not allow anyone to approach them in the forest.
 
As Lynn says, “After 20 years of research, all we had were dots on maps.”
 
For an incredible two decades, he persisted with these standard methods, until one day, he’d had enough and made a momentous decision. He decided to break with convention and try to work directly with the bears.
 
It takes only a few hours in Lynn’s charismatic, bear-like company to understand why he found this easier than most, perhaps aided by the remoteness of his study site and the fact that his nearest boss was more than 350km away.
 
Breaking the rules
 
One of the assumptions made by wildlife managers is that feeding bears makes them aggressive towards humans. So a lot of time and effort is spent trying to keep bears out of campsites, and if they won’t stay away then they often end up shot.
 
The mantra is “a fed bear is a dead bear”.
 
Inspired by the great ape research of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Lynn decided to test this ‘golden rule’ and began taking food into the forest when looking for his collared bears – the ultimate no-no. He’d follow their signs, get as close as he dared and then leave a pile of nuts for them.
 
Making friends
 
Bear experts warned him that it was both wrong and dangerous. But, over time, some bears learned to associate Lynn’s voice with food and allowed him to approach within a few metres.
 
After more than a year of wrestling his own fears and fighting convention, he finally gained the trust of a few bears – June among them. They even allowed him to feed them by hand and stroke their fur. Once they’d had a few handfuls of nuts they’d ignore him and behave naturally.
 
Getting bears such as June used to his touch allowed Lynn to fit radio-collars on them without using tranquilisers. Working against the advice of most bear experts, Lynn had achieved what no other human had dreamed possible. He had earned the trust of wild bears and so won the first ringside seat from which to observe their natural behaviour.
 
Extraordinary insights
 
Lynn has been so successful that, today, he is known as the ‘Jane Goodall of the bears’ and his achievements are no less remarkable than those of his idol. He has begun to paint the first accurate and intimate portrait of the life history of these animals.
 
Like the famous female primatologists, Lynn names his bears instead of giving them numbers, so that his researchers can more easily piece together the seemingly unrelated details of their lives.
 
For the first time, he has been able to directly observe bear habitat use, language, social relationships and individual personalities.
 
Natural TV stars
 
It was this unique body of research that allowed the BBC team to follow and film June and her cubs Lily, Bud and Cal for more than a year, recording events that few other people have ever seen.
 
At first, the film crew found it difficult to approach June, even with her collar. She’s a smart bear, aware of the danger posed by humans and wary of people other than Lynn and his researcher. The BBC team had to be ‘introduced’ properly, a reassuring thought in a place where bears are hunted and therefore might, I thought, be aggressive.
 
As the season progressed and we met other bears, we were surprised by how different each individual was. June is a calm, confident bear who works hard but also knows when to relax and when to hide. As a mother, she never puts a paw wrong.
 
Her daughter Lily has inherited her intelligence. The tender moments as June groomed her for ticks reminded me of the sophisticated interactions seen in gorillas and chimps. Lily’s brothers Cal and Bud seem to be more independent; Cal has even formed a rarely seen friendship with two unrelated yearling males.

 

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