McCain, Palin, earmarks, and the DNA of bears

A few things you might not know about the second most famous congressional earmark, including how it's connected to harbor seals in Alaska.
Crosscut archive image.

Grizzly bear leaving a DNA sample in a "scent trap." (U.S. Geological Survey)

A few things you might not know about the second most famous congressional earmark, including how it's connected to harbor seals in Alaska.

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 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 a 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.


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