Ely, MN (NNCNOW.com) - The North American Bear Center gained worldwide attention after researchers placed a camera in a bear's den to study its hibernation. That attention turned into dollars as many people who had become fans of the den camera bears donated money; and a lot of it.
"I wondered when and if it would ever get paid off," said Bear Center Chairman, Dr. Lynn Rogers, of the debt the Center was in when it opened, "We [Rogers and his wife] mortgaged our property and made an unsecure loan to the Bear Center, which risked bankruptcy."
When the Bear Center opened its doors in 2007, Rogers says it was $700,000 in debt. Then, he turned on a camera.
"So I could learn about the least studied halves of bear's lives," said Rogers of the reason for starting his now famous den cameras.
But by making the den camera video of the black bear available on the internet, the least studied portion of a bear's life soon became one of the most searched items on the internet.
"It had become the number one search on google," said Rogers.
The internet fame created fans worldwide. People who before the den cameras, might never have heard of Dr. Rogers, or the North American Bear Center, were now part of a following, which helped greatly with funding.
From 2009 to 2010, which was the year the den cameras were installed, contributions to the Bear Center nearly doubled. The 990 form filed by Bear Center officials with the IRS, which is a requirment for nonprofits, shows the amount of money brought into the Center by contributions, grants and gifts in 2009 was $268,839. In the 2010 fiscal year, that number was $564,845.
According to Dr. Rogers, bear fans have donated $795,373.12 since January of 2010. He says that thanks to bear fans, the Center's debt was paid off in two years.
"It was just a chance to put this Bear Center on a good financial basis for a better future," said Rogers.
But proof of the den cameras importance in boosting the Bear Center doesn't only lie in financial statements.
St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman says you don't have to look any further than the parking lot.
"We literally have busloads of people come in," Forsman said, "Drive by that parking lot at any time, and I do quite often, and it's full. And those are paying customers. Those are people who come into our community."
It's an attraction that Forsman and other officials say has played a big role in attracting people to Ely and may play an even bigger role now that construction on an expansion, featuring more exhibits and learning centers, is underway.
It's research that has drawn attention to the Bear Center, but has also sparked controversy, as the DNR has expressed concerns about Rogers' methods of studying the bears. But for Rogers, the most important role is the one the Bear Center has played in bear education.
"It's probably doing more to educate people than anywhere else in the world," he said.
Written for the web by Jennifer Austin.