Bears emerge – from dens and political ads

[Tuesday, March 11, 2008] Bears are coming out in Yellowstone; it must be spring. Bears are coming out in political ads too; it must be…election season.

First, the news from the field: Tracks from a bear of unknown species have been seen this week in the Central Plateau of Yellowstone National Park. It’s about this time of year that bears begin to emerge from hibernation, so this sighting is not unusual, although the snowpack in much of the park is still relatively deep this year.   

The other sighting of bear, specifically grizzly, is in a political ad distributed by the Presidential campaign of John McCain (see it on YouTube) in which he mocks a study being conducted in the mountains of northern and central Montana. The essential message: Three million federal dollars to study bear DNA is pure pork – right in there with a twenty million dollar ‘bridge to nowhere’ in Alaska. Mr. McCain has long campaigned against this kind of pork (called earmarking) in the U.S. budget.

Culling egregious cases of pork from the thousands of earmarked items in the federal budget is minor political and journalistic sport, but it’s not without risk. Some topics are less deserving and more sensitive than others. Grizzlies are a sensitive topic. In this case, the McCain ad attracted the attention of both the New York Times and the Washington Post, two of the bigger guns in the sport of pork spotting. This time, however, the guns were trained on Mr. McCain for confusing beef with pork.

They pointed out that the study, the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, isn’t studying bear DNA, but rather is using bear DNA to accurately count the grizzlies in the study area.  It’s part of a larger program for the administration of the Endangered Species Act in the northern Rockies, which needs accurate counts to determine the health and distribution of bear population in order to make appropriate policy. In short, the two papers found the study important science and legitimate to fund.

The multi-year U.S. Geological Survey study has employed 207 people and will cost over $5 million ($4.8 million in Congressional appropriation), not $3 million. The appropriation was championed by then Montana Senator (R) Conrad Burns, who is now Mr. McCain’s campaign chairman in Montana. This could be another case where one man’s pork is another man’s beef.   

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