Surprising Montana Bear DNA Findings Make McCain Eat His Words

Funded by an earmark, scientists have discovered that the Montana bear population is doing better than expected.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

My old college classmate, Kate Kendall, has finished her experiment, counting Montana's grizzly bears for the U.S. Geological Survey via DNA from their hair. And, maybe, Sen. John McCain has apologized for shooting from the lip.

Kate became a topic of debate in the last presidential campaign when the McCain TV commercials made fun of her study, which was financed by a congressional earmark. Bear DNA, you know, sounds like a dumb animal cop show. Well, it turns out that Kate was on to something pretty cool, if you care about American wildlife.

A very long time ago, as a journalist out West, I tagged along with a government wildlife biology team that was working up near Glacier National Park, trying to count wild wolves and bears. Finding those critters (without getting mauled), and putting a radio collar on them is no picnic.

But times change, and in these days of advanced genetic science, Kate asked a simple question: If you gather enough hair from the places where the grizzlies rub against tree trunks and branches, might you not use the DNA to construct a cheaper and safer, but still accurate profile of the bear population in the area? Turns out, you can. She and her team reported their findings in the Journal of Wildlife Management this week.

To the delight of the ranchers and lumber operators in the area (who don't much like to have the big bears protected as endangered species, and probably voted for McCain), Kate's team discovered that the bear population in Montana is doing better than expected. Using 13,000 samples collected over four years, and other data, they determined that there are about 765 grizzly bears in the ecosystem, more than twice as many as expected.

Ace reporter Juliet Eilperin, who works for the Washington Post, cornered McCain in the Capitol this week and asked him if he still thought that Kate's study was a stupid waste of money.

"It's probably right up there with the mapping of the human genome. It justifies every penny of the taxpayer dollars ever spent on it," McCain said. "The bears in Arizona will be very interested in it."

Juliet says that McCain seemed sincere. You can be the judge of that.

As a postscript, here is the necessary disclosure: Kate and I may have been in the same class in college, but we never knew each other, and only met, via email, during the 2008 campaign. And she confirmed, in our electronic exchange two years ago, something I have suspected these many years. The women in our class--the first, if you can believe it, to break the all-male barrier of a major public university--were outnumbered, 10-to-1, by men, and only dated upperclassmen, who had money and cars.

I could have looked like Warren Beatty, and never had a shot with Kate and the other gals in our class. I feel better now.

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