In his first presidential debate with Barack Obama, John McCain trotted out one of his favorite lines about wasteful federal spending. "You know, we spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana," he said. "I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is that it was $3 million of our taxpayers' money. And it has got to be brought under control."
McCain has been using his bear laugh-line to attack earmarks since 2003, when he first spoke out against the grizzly bear study on the Senate floor. Since then, he's cited the bear study on the stump and in campaign ads, joking that the DNA evidence might be needed to establish a cub's paternity or to solve an ursine crime. Which hungry bear stole the hikers' food?
Attacking excessive federal spending has been a hallmark of the McCain-Palin ticket, as the Republican candidates pledge to shrink government. But in the race for the White House, the past apparently is a foreign country. Just as Palin claims to have killed the bridge to nowhere, when it was already dead, McCain voted to fund the bear study that he loves to mock.
In the 2003 bill that included the bear study, according to FactCheck.org, McCain introduced three amendments to reduce funding for other projects. But he didn't vote to cut the bear study. In fact, the study cost more than he says it did -- about $5 million, not $3 million.
Maybe McCain voted for the study because, as much as he may get a kick out of ridiculing it, it is not some frivolous exercise in furry forensics. Nor is it partisan. Its funding was originally championed by Republican lawmakers, and its goal is one that both conservationists and "Drill, baby drill" cheerleaders can get behind.
The Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project attempts to answer basic scientific questions about one of the largest populations of grizzly bears left in the lower 48 states. How many grizzly bears live in a 12,000-square-mile area in and around Glacier National Park? What is their distribution? What's their gender breakdown? Are they breeding with bears from Canada?
The fact that the grizzly bears happen to be in Montana does not mean that that state is trying to pull a fast one on the feds for some pet project. The grizzly is currently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 states. To aid its recovery, which the feds are obligated by law to do, the government must figure out how many bears are out there. Only once they have established a baseline can they then ascertain if that number is going up, down or is stable.
You could hardly call the original backers of the grizzly bear study, then-Montana Sen. Conrad Burns and then-Montana Gov. Judy Martz, "tree huggers." "Those two couldn't give a hoot about grizzlies," says Brian Peck, a wildlife biologist, who works in grizzly conservation for the Great Bear Foundation. As Peck explains, anybody who wants to log, drill for natural gas or oil, graze cattle or build roads in grizzly habitat, as well as their friends in politics, has a vested interest in finding out how many bears live in the area. A healthy bear population could mean relaxing restrictions on development of federal lands the bears call home.
"Sen. Conrad Burns was a key player in getting federal money appropriated for this intensive bear count," says David Gaillard, an advocate with Defenders of Wildlife. "His clear purpose was to show that there are lots of bears out there, and we're ready to delist, and open up their habitat to a lot of friends in industry."
The Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, led by Kate Kendall, a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey, began in 2003. It was the largest non-invasive study of grizzly bears ever. Rather than radio-collaring bears, it aimed to count them without disturbing them. Because bears naturally rub up against trees and fence posts, the study identified almost 4,800 trees, wooden signs and fence posts where bears scratch. Scientists then attached strands of barbed wire to the posts to retrieve the hair. The team also created hair traps by putting scent lures -- a truly revolting home-brew of the liquid from rotting fish and the rotting cattle's blood -- near barbed wire. (To see video of bears visiting traps, click here.)
With the help of 200 field technicians in the summer of 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey team collected 13,000 samples from bear rubs and 21,000 from hair traps at the scent lures. The team scoured the backcountry. Some researchers backpacked 30 miles from the nearest road and spent the whole summer camped in the wilderness, with extra provisions brought in by horse. The team collected hair from 563 individual grizzly bears, which led the scientists to estimate the population of the area to be approximately 765 bears. The project covered 7.8 million acres.
The study also allowed scientists to analyze the distribution, gender and genetic health of the bears. It found a wide distribution of the estimated 470 females, suggesting good reproductive potential. It also found good genetic health in the population, although bears in one area, inhibited in their roaming by human development, appeared to be suffering from inbreeding. The complete results of the Montana study will be published in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.
The Montana area is one of two grizzly habitats in the lower 48 states, the other being the Yellowstone ecosystem, where large numbers of grizzlies still reside. There are now an estimated 1,500 grizzlies in the contiguous United States. When Lewis and Clark ventured west, there were somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 grizzlies, according to Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They were way out in the plains, from the Mississippi River to the California coast, from Canada down to Mexico," she says.
Kendall, the study's principal author, refused to comment on what it was like to see her project become a punch line in the 2008 presidential debate. "My job is to provide reliable information that can be used by managers to responsibly conserve bear populations. I'm not going to wade into the politics," she says.
McCain has been campaigning on restoring scientific integrity to the White House, after the current Republican administration's history of attacking science. In answering questions for Science Debate 2008, McCain pledged that if he is elected president, "policies will be based upon sound science, and that the scientific integrity of federal research [will be] restored."
Yet turning a major wildlife study of an iconic endangered species into the butt of an ongoing campaign joke hardly seems to foretell a return to scientific integrity. Says wildlife biologist Peck: "It makes it harder to do good wildlife management based on science, when you have a candidate for president making a joke out of the whole thing."