Presidential hopeful John McCain has been sharply critical of a $3 million federal appropriation to study grizzly bear DNA, lumping it in with Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere” and other questionable pork barrel projects.
But the grizzly bear study has had concrete results and is viewed as a success by the scientific community.
“It was extremely well executed and well worth the money,” said Sterling Miller, a bear researcher who works for the National Wildlife Federation.
McCain calls the bear study “a waste of money” in his stump speech, and a McCain campaign ad declares: “Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable.”
He even quipped on the floor of the Senate: “Approach a bear. ‘That bear cub over there claims you are his father, and we need to take your DNA.’ Approach another bear: ‘Two hikers had their food stolen by a bear, and we think it is you. We have to get the DNA.’”
But the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, which began in 2003, was a scientific triumph, Katherine Kendall, lead researcher on the project, told the Washington Post.
Her study was designed to get the first count of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem, and Kendall and her co-workers at the U.S. Geological Survey used DNA mainly as a bear-identifying tool.
Her team set up barbed wire enclosures with bear bait in the center. The bears slipped under or over the wire, and some of their hair snagged on the wire. The hair provided DNA, and the snagging didn’t hurt the bear.
“There’s never been any information about the status of this population,” said Kendall. “We didn’t know what was going on — until this study.”
The project — which involved more than 200 paid workers and hundreds of volunteers — actually cost more than $5 million, according to the Post. It revealed that there are more grizzlies in the region than anyone had predicted, a finding that points to the success of conservation efforts and could result in the removal of grizzly bears from the list of endangered species.
One of the bear study’s strongest advocates in Congress was Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, who was defeated in his re-election bid in 2006.
Burns is now chairman of the McCain campaign in Montana.
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