McCain criticizes bear research spending


If you've heard Sen. John McCain's stump speech, you've surely heard him talk about grizzly bears. The federal government, he declares with horror and astonishment, has spent $3 million to study grizzly bear DNA. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal," he jokes, "but it was a waste of money."

A McCain campaign commercial also tweaks the bear research: "Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable."

Actually, it was a scientific and logistical triumph, argues Katherine Kendall, 56, mastermind of the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project.

Kendall is one tough field biologist: She's rafted wild rivers, forded swollen streams and hiked through remote backcountry for weeks at a time. She goes to places inhabited by all manner of large creatures with sharp teeth. She was once charged by an enraged grizzly. She stared the bear down.

So she can handle a growling politician &

even one now poised to become the Republican nominee for president.

"It's pretty cool that we pulled it off," Kendall said of her project while giving a tour of the rugged terrain near Glacier National Park. "Nobody got seriously hurt. We collected a ton of bear hair. We stayed on budget."

McCain, who has railed against government pork for two decades, cites three beneficiaries of what he calls wasteful spending in his TV ad "Outrageous." One is the infamous "bridge to nowhere," a project in Alaska, pushed by the Republican congressional delegation, that would link a sparsely populated island with the mainland. Another is a museum at the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival, which would be supported with a million-dollar earmark co-sponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.

And the third is the grizzly project. McCain has been jabbing rhetorically at Kendall's study since it began in 2003, including from 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.' The DNA doesn't fit, you got to acquit, if I might."

Kendall, on orders from her superiors, will not directly respond to McCain ("I really can't wade into that"), but she clearly doesn't find his jibes amusing, much less accurate. The truth is, her project is focused not on the DNA of grizzly bears, but on counting them.

As a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, she set out to get the first head count of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. She and her co-workers at the USGS have used DNA primarily as a bear-identifying tool. Her project also employed barbed wire and homemade bear bait brewed up from rotten fish and cattle blood.

"There's never been any information about the status of this population. We didn't know what was going on &

until this study," Kendall said.

This was an astonishingly ambitious research project involving 207 paid workers, hundreds of volunteers, 7.8 million acres and 2,560 bear sampling sites. The project did not cost $3 million, as McCain's ad alleges, but more than $5 million, including nearly $4.8 million in congressional appropriations. It had a strong advocate in Congress in Montana's three-term senator, Conrad Burns, a Republican who was defeated in his reelection bid in 2006.

Burns is now chairman of McCain's campaign in Montana.

Grizzly bears in northwest Montana are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But Kendall's project &

the results of which will be published soon in a scientific journal &

revealed that there are more grizzlies than anyone had realized. That suggests that three decades of conservation efforts, costing tens of millions of dollars, have paid off.

This could have long-term implications for the Northern Divide grizzlies, possibly including their removal someday from the threatened list. Delisting them would restore management of the bears to state control after decades of federal oversight.

"It was extremely well executed and well worth the money," said Sterling Miller, a bear researcher working for the National Wildlife Federation. "Someone like McCain should be delighted, in fact. The Endangered Species Act works."

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