By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008
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.
Kendall is one tough field biologist: She's rafted wild rivers, forded swollen streams and hiked through remote backcountry for weeks at a time. She goes to places inhabited by all manner of large creatures with sharp teeth. She was once charged by an enraged grizzly. She stared the bear down.
So she can handle a growling politician -- even one now poised to become the Republican nominee for president.
"It's pretty cool that we pulled it off," Kendall said of her project while giving a tour of the rugged terrain near Glacier National Park. "Nobody got seriously hurt. We collected a ton of bear hair. We stayed on budget."
McCain, who has railed against government pork for two decades, cites three beneficiaries of what he calls wasteful spending in his TV ad "Outrageous." One is the infamous "bridge to nowhere," a project in Alaska, pushed by the Republican congressional delegation, that would link a sparsely populated island with the mainland. Another is a museum at the site of the 1969 Woodstock music festival, which would be supported with a million-dollar earmark co-sponsored by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
And the third is the grizzly project. McCain has been jabbing rhetorically at Kendall's study since it began in 2003, including from the floor of the Senate:
"Approach a bear: 'That bear cub over there claims you are his father, and we need to take your DNA.' Approach another bear: 'Two hikers had their food stolen by a bear, and we think it is you. We have to get the DNA.' The DNA doesn't fit, you got to acquit, if I might."
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.
This was an astonishingly ambitious research project involving 207 paid workers, hundreds of volunteers, 7.8 million acres and 2,560 bear sampling sites. The project did not cost $3 million, as McCain's ad alleges, but more than $5 million, including nearly $4.8 million in congressional appropriations. It had a strong advocate in Congress in Montana's three-term senator, Conrad Burns, a Republican who was defeated in his reelection bid in 2006.
Burns is now chairman of McCain's campaign in Montana.
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."Ex-Cheerleader vs. Mama Bear
Kate Kendall grew up in Falls Church and attended George Marshall High School. "Cheerleader Turns Bear Biologist," she said, writing her own headline.
She has spent 33 years with the federal government, mostly studying bears. She commutes to Glacier National Park every day from her home in Columbia Falls. It's a spectacular place to work, but, like so many scientists these days, she spends most of her hours staring into a computer screen. Still, she is ready at a moment's notice to slap on cross-country skis and go just about anywhere. She's dressed for the field: Gore-Tex jacket, trusty 25-year-old snow boots.
She's not afraid of bears but respects them. She knows what it's like to spend the night wide awake in a backwoods shelter with bear spray at the ready.
"When they're aggressive, they're on all fours, they've got their ears back, and they're charging you. I happen to know," she said.
She discovered that in Yellowstone National Park in 1981. She and a colleague surprised a female bear and her cub. Both animals were fleeing. Oh, neat, Kendall thought -- bears! But it turned out the mother was just stashing the cub in a safe spot. Mama bear returned and charged Kendall.
There was no tree to climb. Running would have been pointless.
"You can't outrun a grizzly bear. They can run 35 miles an hour."
So she stood her ground and made a lot of noise.
The bear stopped and turned away.
Hiking back out of the woods, Kendall had a thought: Maybe she should become the kind of biologist who studies mice.How Many Bears in the Woods?
Protecting bears is, in a sense, a way of protecting everything else around them. They're an "umbrella species," as conservationists put it.
"They are these very flexible, intelligent animals who can survive just about anywhere. There are brown bears that survive in the Gobi Desert," Kendall said.
Why count them?
"We just can't be managing in the dark for another 25 years," she said.
Bears are hard to count because they're not like buffalo grazing on open range. They live, as has been widely noted, in the woods.
They are also shy, unless they're surprised. Padding around quietly in hopes of sneaking up on grizzlies would not be a smart way for researchers to conduct a census of Ursus arctos horribilis. Kendall does not venture into bear country without shouting loudly every couple of minutes: "Hey, bear!"
The secret to counting bears is obtaining hair. One way is to pluck it off of "rub trees," which bears use for marking territory. The other trick is to use a string of barbed wire to make a pen. Place some stinking bear bait in the center, and the bear will slip under (or sometimes, if the bear is huge, over) the wire. Snagging hair that way doesn't hurt the animal.
In 2002 Kendall and her colleagues proposed using such hair traps to count bears in Glacier National Park and the nearby wilderness. Multiple state and federal agencies backed the plan. So did Montana's governor at the time, Judy Martz, a Republican, who asked the congressional delegation for support. The project found a powerful ally in Burns, who chaired the subcommittee overseeing the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey. Burns, Kendall said, added $1 million to the USGS budget in 2003 and pushed through add-ons for the next four years.
That got the attention of McCain, who every year puts out a list of what he considers egregious or laughable pork-barrel projects. He has gone after wasteful military projects and corporate tax breaks, but for rhetorical purposes he's shown a fondness for mocking money spent on dubious-sounding projects involving plants and animals.
He has criticized the $2 million spent on Oregon's Groundfish Disaster Outreach Program, the $280,000 spent on asparagus technology in Washington state, the $600,000 for peanut research in Alabama.
"One of our all-time favorites, made famous a number of years ago, is money that was spent to study the effect on the ozone layer of flatulence in cows," McCain said in 2003. "One always wondered about the testing procedures used to determine those effects on the ozone layer."
For McCain, bears have been, like cows and peanuts and asparagus, good material.
But he didn't try to block the grizzly funding by offering an amendment to remove it from the 2003 appropriations bill. And ultimately he voted for the bill.
A Senate aide to McCain said the senator objects to the way that pork -- which he views as money not requested by the administration or properly authorized by Congress -- is slipped into bills via add-ons and earmarks. "Senator McCain does not question the merits of these projects; it's the process that he has a problem with," the aide said.The Dangers of Collecting Hair
Kendall put together a study area of 12,127 square miles, dividing the territory into 640 cells, each about five miles square. Her plan called for workers and volunteers to go into each cell with bait and barbed wire and set up several hair traps. Moreover, they had to revisit each cell three times, collecting hair and relocating the traps.
Can't be done, some researchers thought.
"How are you going to get back there to do it?" wondered Wayne Kasworm, a bear expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "You have to go back to these places multiple times."
As a woman in a male-dominated field, Kendall was used to being underestimated. But she also thought of all the things that could go wrong. She would be sending people to places 30 miles from the nearest road. And they'd be carrying bear bait.
The stuff reeked to high heaven. Her recipe: Dump cattle blood and whole fish into separate 55-gallon drums and age for a year. Then blend fish with a sheetrock mud mixer. Strain fish solids from liquid, and mix liquid with the rotten blood.
"It is difficult to convey the stench of this operation to anyone that was not there," Kendall reports.
The bottles of bait sometimes get hot and explode upon opening. Jeff Stetz, Kendall's deputy, has had bear bait sprayed in his face, which quickened his step on the way back to civilization.
And never mind the grizzlies: The Montana backcountry has many creatures with sharp teeth and questionable dispositions. A moose can stomp a person. A rutting elk is no bargain. And cougars will stalk a hiker.
Someone could burn up in a wildfire.
"I was worried about people getting killed in river crossings," Kendall said.
All through 2003 and 2004 she worried -- until the day it was over, and she had 33,741 samples of hair to send off for lab analysis.
That hair represented 563 different grizzly bears. That's just a minimum. Some bears left hair at multiple sites. By studying that pattern, Kendall can estimate how many bears there are in the entire ecosystem.
"By repeatedly sampling, we can estimate the number of bears that we didn't catch," she said.
Kendall may retire after she publishes a few more scientific papers emerging from her project. But she is still brimming with research ideas -- one, for example, inspired by something the bears kept doing. They would notice the researchers' motion-sensitive cameras, and walk up and lick them.
"We should do a slobber sample study for DNA next time. You can get really good DNA from spit," she said.
She hasn't yet figured out the funding.