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Grizzly bear leaving a DNA sample in a "scent trap." Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.

McCain, Palin, Earmarks, and the DNA of Bears and Harbor Seals

Last Friday, at the onset of the ongoing congressional struggle over our “main street economic rescue package,” fifty million of us watched Republican presidential candidate John McCain debate his Democratic rival Barack Obama. And tonight, as Congress is finishing up our economic rescue, even more than fifty million of us will watch Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin face off with Democrat Joe Biden.

Based on what happened in that presidential debate, I strongly suspect she won’t say anything about the grizzly bear or harbor seal DNA.

In presidential debate, McCain used what might now be the second most famous congressional earmark (behind Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” – the $3 million study of grizzly bear DNA in Montana – as an example of wasteful overspending by Congress. In the debate, McCain actually referred to it as “criminal.” Such bashing of the bear study has been part of his standard stump speech for a long time. I’ve heard it several times before the first great debate of 2008. Click here to see a McCain ad calling the bear study earmark “unbelievable.”

Here’s what McCain didn’t say, and what Palin won’t say.

When the grizzly bear DNA earmark came up for a vote in the U.S. Senate, McCain not only did nothing to try to remove it from the spending bill, but he actually voted for it. I guess he forgot to mention that little detail.

And his running mate, the governor of Alaska being billed as a reformer who fights against earmarks, officially requested a very similar earmark, $3.2 million to study “the genetics of harbor seals.” This was part of a long list of requested earmarks, totaling nearly $200 million.

So what about this grizzly bear DNA study?

The research started back in 2004 and was managed by bear scientist Kate Kendall who works for the U.S. Geological Survey in Glacier National Park and is a pioneer in using DNA samples to estimate bear populations. About 200 part-time workers set up scent traps and rub trees and regularly checked for bear hair snared by the traps and trees. Then, the bear hair went to labs to determine the DHA genotype and ended up in a giant database.

The research identified 545 individual grizzly bears in northwestern Montana. Since not every bear left a sample for Kendall’s part-time army, she and her team are using statistical models to give us a more accurate estimate of the total grizzly population, which will be significantly higher than 545.

You won’t see this in the news, but some biologists think the $3 million could have been put to better use, such as hiring more bear conflict specialists and buying bear-resistant garbage containers. Even Kendall agrees that it has limited value. It is, she says, “only snapshot in time” of the bear population. It doesn’t tell us how many bears are enough or if the population is increasing or decreasing.

But that’s all water under the bridge, and it was not the real purpose of the earmark. The purpose of the research was, unofficially, to provide better scientific information to allow us to “delist” the grizzly, currently listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Hence, the earmark. It was a political necessity to move towards the delisting of the grizzly bear,

The Yellowstone grizzly population, incidentally, has already been proposed for delisting, but is currently working its way through the court system. The Yellowstone grizzly delisting came about without spending $3 million to snare bear hair, but Yellowstone researchers used a different method, counting females with cubs and using yearly counts to determine an upward population trend. Through the years, by the way, much more than $3 million was spent getting the science necessary to back up beliefs that the Yellowstone population is recovered.

So, John, let’s ease off on the bashing of the grizzly bear DNA study. Even though the entire concept of earmarking is frustrating and certainly needs reforming, sometimes earmarks can be a bridge to somewhere.

About Bill Schneider

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  1. Three million bucks just to add one more target for shooting sportsmen?

    I’d have to swallow hard and turn my head to vote against any science; but I’m hard-pressed not to imagine how such a lowly project like this one must have been cranked up to cost that much..!

  2. Isn’t that in addition to the FWS salaries of the individuals doing the count of the hairs? I wouldn’t worry too much about anyone shooting them, the environmental judges aren’t going to let that happen. And if it is in defense of one’s own life they had better be able to prove it.

  3. Part of the $4.8 million cost was for video cameras that showed bears scratching their backs on trees. Wow. Biologists have known about this behavior for decades. Biologists have seen this behavior 1st hand without the aid of remote video cameras and other high tech gee gaws. Biologists still don’t know why the bears do it. But it was worth spending god knows how much money to film bears scratching their backs on trees because ????? it’s RESEARCH!!! SCIENCE!!!! Holy, Holy, Holy. Don’t you dare question research and science. It’s holy holy holy.

    For $250,000, I’ll do an analysis of the theory that hunting bears teaches them to fear man and reduces bear-human conflicts. It will take me 49 minutes to send out an email blast requesting peer-reviewed, published research on the topic, and 11 minutes to read the three peer reviewed, published “studies” on the topic.
    $250,000 an hour seems fair to me.

  4. The fact is that millions upon millions of dollars have turned to utter waste because the national forests where the bears live essentially became do-nothing money pits.
    Nobody mentions that part.
    There was so little hard knowledge about the bears, where they are and how many, that something needed to be done to get a reasonably comprehensive “snapshot.”
    I’d also like to see more money spent on collaring females and tracking their hourlies.

  5. Perhaps this study will prove to be worth the money spent if they can document enough bears with enough genetic diversity to take them off the endangered species list. Where do we get money to study the Canadian wolves so we can take them off the list. Let’s see… Idaho elk harvest in 1994 28,000. Wolves introduced in 1995. 2007 elk harvest 19,100. I think the grizzly bear study showed there were 2 1/2 times the number of bears that were estimated. Idaho’s mid September wolf population estimate was 771 in 89 packs. If there are 2 1/2 times as many wolves as are estimated that would put us at 1,927 wolves. Now can we delist them? That would be worth several million dollars. How much do hunters contribute to the economy per elk shot? Wolves have been sited within a mile of several towns. Will they be in your town this winter?

  6. BeckyJ, you don’t really think anything will get environmental groups to stop filing lawsuits to prevent delisting of any species do you? Lawsuits are a cash cow for one thing, and power over other people is a very powerful high.
    I argue all of the time about the wolves in Yellowstoen itself. The fact that they have had a calf survival in the teens for years now and the numbers drop every year is considered a good thing by thosse that want more and more wolves.

  7. By the way the judge in DC threw out the delisting og the Great Lakes wolves because they are still endangered in the rest of the country. This map shows where he wants wolves before any are delisted.

  8. No, I really don’t expect the environmental litigation industry to listen to reason, but you have to hope that at some point people will see it for what it really is.