Feb. 28, 2011

Why the DNR, as a matter of policy, won't give added protection to collared bears

By Tom Landwehr
Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

As the new DNR commissioner, I have faced a dizzying array of issues during my first six weeks on the job. The DNR's scope of authority ranges from forestry and mining to fishing and camping, and each area has issues where I sometimes must make an unpopular decision.

I recently made a tough decision on an issue involving a lot of public emotion, but one requiring me to balance research desires against pragmatism and private interests against public good.

The DNR received a request from bear researcher Mr. Lynn Rogers to make it illegal for licensed hunters to kill bears fitted with radio collars. Radio collars, which are attached around the neck of an animal, are frequently used to study bear habits. Mr. Rogers made the request because he was concerned his bear-research project would be compromised if collared bears were legally harvested by licensed hunters. DNR bear researchers use similar collars, so I understand Mr. Roger's concern.

This was not a decision I came to easily, but I ultimately concluded that protecting collared bears through DNR rule is not desirable. Here are my reasons:

  • While Mr. Rogers' research is popular and interesting, it is not essential to managing bear populations in Minnesota. As a matter of policy, our job at the DNR is to manage entire populations of wild animals, and singling out individual bears for protection is not a policy I support.
  • Making it illegal to harvest radio-collared bears would be largely unenforceable. Most bears are taken in low light at dawn and dusk. It is very likely a hunter could fail to distinguish a marked bear. In this case, when markings are hard to see, a hunter could easily miss seeing them and accidentally kill a collared bear. We don't want to prosecute people for honest mistakes.
  • It is nearly impossible to prove a crime. Even if markings are visible, it would be difficult for a conservation officer to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that a hunter could see the collars. Also, a truly guilty party could remove collar flagging surreptitiously and further argue they were not visible.
  • Wildlife belongs to all Minnesotans. It is a public resource, and wild game animals are lawful to harvest under state law. Placing a collar and flagging on a game animal shouldn't "reserve" it for one individual or group. Even in the name of research, individuals or groups shouldn't be allowed to preempt legal harvest. It sets a terrible precedent for usurpation of public resources.
  • This issue is properly a legislative one. The DNR manages populations and doesn't set regulations regarding individual animals. If society believes individual animals should be protected, I believe the legislature is best suited to make that change to reflect the will of the people.

The DNR uses radio collars to study bears. The agency loses research bears annually to legal harvest, so our researchers understand the issue. We recognize, however, that in a wild population of wild animals, hunting is a function of their life cycle in a human-dominate landscape.

The DNR works diligently to make hunters aware that bears with radio collars are important for research. We will continue to request hunters not to shoot them.

We will also work with Mr. Rogers, local communities, bear guides and hunters in our public education efforts to protect radio-collared bears. We have received a high level of cooperation from this voluntary effort.

I firmly believe this is the best approach.