A joke meant to highlight a serious issue about wasteful federal spending apparently went over well enough before an audience in Orange County, Calif., last month, that John McCain decided to trot it out before a national audience at the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2008.
"You know, we spent $3-million to study the DNA of bears in Montana," McCain said at the debate. "I don't know if that was a criminal issue or a paternal issue, but the fact is that it was $3-million of our taxpayers' money. And it has got to be brought under control."
The bear study in Montana has become a go-to line in McCain’s stump speeches, and we fact-checked an almost identical line when McCain said it before an audience of evangelicals at Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., on Aug. 16, 2008.
The U.S. Geological Survey is indeed conducting a study that involves the DNA of bears in Montana, but the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project actually has received more earmarked funding than McCain mentions — to the tune of $4.8-million, according to Katherine C. Kendall, the researcher in charge of the study.
The study had received $3.1-million in earmarked money by 2003, the year McCain first started taking aim at the project (he mentioned it on the Senate floor as part of a speech criticizing earmarks). But apparently McCain's campaign rhetoric hasn't been updated to reflect the additional $1.69-million the study's gotten since 2003.
And, strictly speaking, the point of the project isn't really to analyze the bears' DNA, it's to use their DNA to take a census. The researchers collect hair left when the grizzlies scratch themselves on trees, then use DNA extracted from the hair to identify individual bears. This helps researchers count the number of grizzlies that live in Montana, considered one of the last strongholds of this endangered species.
Kendall said it's a much cheaper — and safer — way to count them than traditional methods, which involve capturing grizzly bears and saddling them with satellite collars. It also has resulted in doubling the previous population estimates. The new figures, when paired with the results of another study on population trends, may eventually lead to removing grizzlies from the endangered list.
McCain's math is a little dated. And he clearly is suggesting "the study of bear DNA" is a frivolous use of federal money, but we won't argue the merits of the project. McCain claims $3-million in federal money has been used to study the DNA of bears, and that's Mostly True.