Cool customer: Bear researcher says encounters aren’t frightening
“When I see this — a bear lunging at you, paws all stretched, slapping the ground, blowing explosively — I feel safe,” he said.
That isn’t because he is standing his ground against a vicious animal. It’s because he has watched them long enough to know it is for show.
Rogers, principal wildlife biologist at the Wildlife Research Institute in Ely, Minnesota, has been studying bears for almost 50 years. He visited Houghton as part of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Through Forestry forum series.
At the dawn of bear research in the 1950s, the approach was to trap and tranquilize. Rogers, though, looked for ways to make it “kinder and gentler.” He took as his inspiration Jane Goodall’s work with chimpanzees.
“There’s only so much you can learn by measuring a tranquilized bear or putting some dots on a map,” he said. “You had to really see the bears.”
He had to get over the fears of bears he had absorbed. He assumed if he came near a mother with cubs, they would attack. And if he hung around bears too long, they would lose their fear of him.
But after seeing enough bears bluster without attacking, Rogers lost his fear of them. He showed a photo of a lunging bear — followed by the bear retreating without an attack. It turned out to be part of a “ritualized, harmless display,” Rogers said.
“Eventually, I realized they do that when there’s uncertainty about a situation. They’re feeling anxiety, but not enough to run away or attack and defend,” he said. “It’s like you want to discuss the situation, you want to test the situation.”
He recounted a time in a den with a mother protecting her bears. She showed a narrow muzzle, a sign of tension, and the standard slapping and blowing display.
“She’s got cubs, she’s concerned,” he said. “How much more serious a situation could you be in? And she didn’t attack.”
Not only didn’t she attack, she turned her back and hid her head in the back corner of the den.
Once the bears lost their fear of the researchers, many of them stopped noticing the humans at all. Rogers showed some of the photos and videos he had collected. Many break old suppositions about bear habits, including one of a bear digging a den in 80-degree weather in July. The bear gave birth in the den six months later.
Conventional wisdom says when coming upon a black bear, people should not run from the bear, as it might trigger a predatory response. Rogers has not been able to turn up an occurrence.
“You can transfer an attack that’s underway from one place to another, if the bear’s on you and predatory and wants to get you, but I’ve never known it to trigger an attack,” he said. “What I hear from people all the time is, ‘I saw a bear. The bear ran one way, I ran another.'”
What should people do if they see a bear? Speaking slowly and backing away is the common answer, and the most respectful one.
“The real story is that people have done everything all over the board when they see bears,” he said. “Attacks are rare no matter what. It doesn’t make much difference what you do when you see a bear.”
Garrett Neese’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.