Bear DNA Isn't Pork, Regardless of What John McCain Says

McCain was against the bear study before he was for it before he was against it. Seriously.

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Unless we want the grandkids to wonder, as they pay their $175 admission fee at Verizon Glacier Park or the Exxon Mobil National Park at Yellowstone, why there are no grizzly bears on the planet, we may want to do something about saving the big beasts now.

And the first step toward preserving and managing a threatened species, a reasonable person might suggest, is to get an accurate count.

So why, when John McCain was asked in the presidential debate on Friday how he will right the economy and bring good paying jobs to America, did he fall back on a tired joke about wasteful earmarks and mock Kate Kendall's bear count?

Kendall is a highly qualified, talented scientist, working for a United States Geological Survey team that is trying to manage the wildlife on federal lands in the northern Rockies. I've spent some time with the wildlife biologists out West, and I can tell you they are good folks—earnest and practical and dedicated to their work. They love the outdoors and liberty and all God's creatures, except perhaps the bugs.

Being a scientist, Kate proposed that the federal government use—science!—to conduct a census of the grizzly bears.

Specifically, Kate and her team suggested that instead of sending researchers out hiking and flying around the rugged, heavily timbered region to count the big bear with a missing tooth, the female with a crippled paw, or the young male with a droopy eye, the scientists compile an exact profile of the bear population using DNA technology.

It is a pretty simple procedure. You can watch it online here. (My favorite clip is at the bottom, where a lone wolf plays tag with two grizzly cubs and their mom.)

The wildlife biologists string lines of wire around some tasty bear bait and, when brother bear has ambled off, collect the fur that gets snagged on the wire.

As with all mammals, the bear's DNA is carried in its hair, and every bear's DNA is different. And so an accurate tally can be taken. It is safe and exact, and can be captured on videotape. It's relatively inexpensive. And if scientists decide it's worthwhile, the procedure can, of course, be applied to other species as well.

Indeed, after mocking the project when it first reached the Senate floor, McCain apparently had second thoughts and decided not to try to remove it from a proposed spending bill. In fact, he ended up voting for it—though he has since continued to mock it as a staple of his campaign stump speech.

That's right. He was against it before he was for it before he was against it.

C'mon, Jack, you say. All those federal wildlife biologists have a granola-munching agenda that McCain was quick to spot. They are all radical environmentalists.

Nope. Kendall's study recently reported that the grizzly bear population in the northern Rockies was doing quite well, thank you, and making something of a comeback—thus allowing the energy, timber, and other extractive industries to argue for increased exploration and development of federal lands.

And, still, McCain made fun of the science on Friday night.

Now, it is perhaps not surprising to find this hostility to science in a presidential ticket that prides itself on being antielitist, antiprofessional, and, sometimes, just plain dumb.

Both McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, say it's fine for school boards to mix creationist superstition with science in biology curriculums.

And according to Steve Braun's reporting for The Los Angeles Times yesterday, Palin recently shared her belief that Fred and Wilma indeed walked the Earth with Dino and the other dinosaurs, just a few thousand years ago.

Hey, Sarah, how come there aren't any Fred and Barney fossils mixed with the dinosaur skeletons in the millions-of-year-old bedrock?

Palin, of course, is the governor who, when asked to choose between survival of the polar bear (threatened by global warming) and more corporate profits, sided with the poor, endangered oil industry.

McCain should know better. He got a fine education, heavy on engineering, math, and science, at the U.S. Naval Academy.

If he truly believes that Americans are better off sticking with myths and mysteries, while Asian and European scientists take over the search for knowledge, McCain should say so.

If not, he should offer leadership, tell the crazies in the Republican base that there is room in this world for both religion and science, and stop bashing good scientists like Kendall and her colleagues.