North American Bear Center: Big Impact on Ely

By KBJR News 1

January 30, 2013 Updated Jan 30, 2013 at 11:50 PM CDT

Ely, MN (NNCNOW.com) - The North American Bear Center has fans across the globe and not just online. Many of those fans actually visit the Center's home in Ely.

When ground broke in September for a more than $1 million expansion to the Center, there was no doubt it meant good things for the Center's mission of bear education.

"The new addition will give a broader view of bears," said Chairman, Dr. Lynn Rogers, "That will be about the animals that the bears interact with."

An expansion of what is already one of the area's major tourist attractions. Rogers says the Center brings about 7,000 people to Ely every year. What's more, he says since 2010, fans of the bears have contributed more than $250,000 to the Ely community, including to area schools and food shelves.

"As people fell in love with the bears here, they also fell in love with the community," Rogers said.

"Many of them have already been on the internet, they've seen the web cams," said St. Louis County Commissioner Mike Forsman.

Forsman says visitors aren't just stopping at the Center, but visiting other area attractions and bringing in money to Ely in the process.

"Those are people that come into our community, after they've gone to the Bear Center, after they've gone to the Wolf Center, after they've been to our shops, etcetera," he said.

But the research done by Dr. Rogers at the nearby Wildlife Research Institute has raised concern.

The Minnesota DNR sent a letter to Dr. Rogers last month, citing that for a research facility, Rogers has published little of that research in the past decade.

"He has not demonstrated any kind of peer–reviewed research or published any data that's been collected under this permit for the past decade," said the DNR's Director of Communications, Chris Niskanen.

In the letter, the DNR revised Rogers' research permit, which he needs in order to continue collaring the wild bears. The agency limited the number of bears Rogers can collar to twelve.

The agency has also expressed concern with Rogers' method of studying the bears, which entails up close interaction with the animals. Rogers says it's the best way to learn about bear behavior. The DNR says it causes the bears to become too familiar with humans. They say dozens of people who live near Rogers research facility have reported bears coming too close for comfort.

"After the research station came into being, there were a lot of problems with bears here," said Kurt Soderberg, who lives near the research facility in Ely.

Soderberg says Rogers' collared research bears have come uncomfortably close on multiple occasions, not behaving as he believes wild animals should.

"Try as I might, they just weren't going to leave [my property]," said Soderberg, "Nothing that I did was going to make them leave the property."

But Rogers stands by his research, saying the DNR's limit on how many bears he can collar, makes it difficult for him to produce solid findings.

"The same time they're [the DNR] saying I should publish more, they're making it harder to publish, by limiting the sample size," Rogers said.

Commissioner Forsman says he hopes to meet with officials from the DNR to discuss the concerns surrounding the Bear Center.

Meanwhile, parts of the Bear Center's expansion are expected to open this spring.

Written for the web by Jennifer Austin.