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The Story Behind the Bear DNA

September 27, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Early in the McCain-Obama debate last night, Senator McCain yet again brought up the issue of the $3 million Congressional appropriation (“earmark”) for a bear DNA study in Montana. This was the one example he gave (maybe there were more, but it’s the one I latched onto) of wasteful governmental spending on pork, or earmarks. Of course, focusing on an earmark that cost $3 million in the context of a discussion of a $700 billion bailout suggests an insufficient sense of scale, either on Senator McCain’s own part or in his expectations of the audience. But what I find more troubling is his continued use of this expenditure as an example of self-evident waste, without making any effort to educate the audience (or perhaps himself) on why it’s a waste.

Anti-intellectual and anti-science currents run deep in this country. I am not sufficiently informed to address the history of this, but I can at least refer as a start to Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 Puliter-Prize-winning book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. As to the issue at hand, Coco Ballantyne provided some background on the bear study last February in Scientific American. Excerpts follow.

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain is a well-known critic of frivolous government spending otherwise known as pork: those pricey projects that legislators routinely—and surreptitiously—slip into appropriations packages to benefit their own districts and bring them coveted votes. But scientists charge that an important study of grizzly bear DNA has gotten caught in the crosshairs as the veteran Arizona lawmaker attempts to showcase his creds as a crusader against wasteful government spending. …

Currently the front-runner for the GOP nod, McCain also hits the research in speeches on the stump, cracking jokes about bear paternity tests and criminal investigations. “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money,” McCain railed last month during a campaign stop in Clawson, Mich. Scientists, however, are not amused: They insist that the study is not only worth every penny but that the $3-million price tag cited in the ad is, in a word, wrong.

In fact, Congress over the past five years has forked over a total of $4.8 million to study the genetic material of Montana’s grizzly bears, according to Katherine Kendall, a research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Kendall heads the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, which is aimed at obtaining the first accurate population estimate of grizzlies living in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem—eight million acres of land in northwestern Montana that encompasses Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

“This is not pork barrel at all,” says Richard Mace, a research biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). “We have a federal law called the Endangered Species Act and [under this law] the federal government is supposed to help identify and conserve threatened species.” …

In 2002 Kendall assembled a scientific panel with representatives from the USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWP, along with other scientific and environmental organizations to determine the best way to measure the remaining grizzly population of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. It recommended setting up barbed wire hair-snagging stations to painlessly pluck fur from passing bears that would be used for DNA fingerprinting, a technique employed to distinguish individuals of the same species by the differences in their genetic material. This is the only way to accurately estimate population in such heavily forested terrain, where bears are difficult to spot, says Chris Servheen, a grizzly expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In response, the USGS set aside $250,000 to launch the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project; the next year, Congress stepped in to provide additional funding, and from 2003 to 2007 appropriated $4.8 million to the effort, Kendall says.

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