Sen. McCain’s mockery of a significant federal scientific grizzly bear study


The Washington Post’s March 10 front page story, “McCain Sees Pork Where Scientists See Success—Candidate Criticizes Ambitious Bear Study,” illustrates two things to us once more: (1) the Senator is not always careful about how he uses, or misuses, scientific research; and (2) a complete rejection of appropriations earmarks makes no more sense than the politically cynical use of them.

[Climate Science Watch is a watchdog project that takes an independent view of all elected officials and political candidates on the science and policy accountability issues of concern to us.]

The Post reports on Sen. McCain’s criticism of the scientific research led by Katherine Kendall, U.S. Geological Survey field biologist and head of the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project: 

WEST GLACIER, Mont.—If you’ve heard Sen. John McCain’s stump speech, you’ve surely heard him talk about grizzly bears. The federal government, he declares with horror and astonishment, has spent $3 million to study grizzly bear DNA. “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal,” he jokes, “but it was a waste of money.”

A McCain campaign commercial also tweaks the bear research: “Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable.”

Actually, it was a scientific and logistical triumph, argues Katherine Kendall, 56, mastermind of the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project….

McCain has been jabbing rhetorically at Kendall’s study since it began in 2003, including from the floor of the Senate….

Kendall, on orders from her superiors, will not directly respond to McCain (“I really can’t wade into that”), but she clearly doesn’t find his jibes amusing, much less accurate. The truth is, her project is focused not on the DNA of grizzly bears, but on counting them.

As a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, she set out to get the first head count of grizzlies in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. She and her co-workers at the USGS have used DNA primarily as a bear-identifying tool. Her project also employed barbed wire and homemade bear bait brewed up from rotten fish and cattle blood.

“There’s never been any information about the status of this population. We didn’t know what was going on—until this study,” Kendall said….

Grizzly bears in northwest Montana are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. But Kendall’s project—the results of which will be published soon in a scientific journal—revealed that there are more grizzlies than anyone had realized. That suggests that three decades of conservation efforts, costing tens of millions of dollars, have paid off.

This could have long-term implications for the Northern Divide grizzlies, possibly including their removal someday from the threatened list. Delisting them would restore management of the bears to state control after decades of federal oversight.

“It was extremely well executed and well worth the money,” said Sterling Miller, a bear researcher working for the National Wildlife Federation. “Someone like McCain should be delighted, in fact. The Endangered Species Act works.”…

Why count them?

“We just can’t be managing in the dark for another 25 years,” she said.

Sen. McCain and his campaign should refrain from further attacks on this study, and vet his future statements more carefully before appearing to taking anti-science positions.

We reject the legitimacy of any “orders from her superiors” that Kendall not respond directly to Sen. McCain, whether the orders come from administration political appointees or backside-covering career bureaucrats. It is good that she has spoken on the record for the Washington Post to do this story. But when scientists—whether in government or academia—believe that a politician has misrepresented their work, they should be free—should be encouraged—to address the politician directly, in public, and set the record straight. Who is responsible for preventing Kendall from speaking truth to power? This is Washington culture that must be changed—and must be watchdogged no matter who wins the next election.

In setting the future direction of the U.S. Global Change Research Program/Climate Change Science Program, we need the next administration to step up support for a wide range of studies focused on the impacts of global climate disruption on ecosystems, including studies across all geographical regions that analyze impacts on plant and animal species. Climate change impacts on habitats and biological diversity are a fundamental and urgent concern for both scientific research and policymaking. Detailed observational and process studies will be needed in order to inform decisionmaking on ecosystem management issues. Funding for impacts and adaptive management research will need to be significantly increased. The Senator’s approach in the case of this grizzly bear research project does not send a good signal about how he would provide leadership for important new directions in scientific research on climate and global environmental change.

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