The bear necessities

In stump speeches and TV ads, John McCain makes a point of mocking wasteful federal spending – and he’s got special contempt for $3 million spent on an “unbelievable” study of grizzly-bear DNA in Montana. “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money,” he jokes. It’s a theme McCain has been riffing on for years:In 2003, he elaborated on his CSI: Yellowstone fantasy. “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.’”

In reality, as the Washington Post reported yesterday, the study in question had a more useful purpose: Testing DNA from tree-rubs is the only way to assess the grizzly population. With bear numbers at a mere three percent of their historic levels, the tests provided vital data on whether preservation efforts under the Endangered Species Act were up to snuff– and helped ensure that federal conservation funds were directed to where they would do the most good.

McCain’s camp now says the senator didn’t mean to say the bear project was unworthy, but only that it shouldn’t have been funded as a pork project. That’s disingenuous: Calling the study “a waste of money” seems pretty unambiguous. Either way, the question remains: Why pick out an environmental project for special criticism? There were plenty of other projects to choose from: Lawmakers have ploughed through a quarter-trillion dollars of pork since 1991, sending home $10.8 billion in defense projects and $2.4 billion in homeland security projects in 2007 alone.

So why the grudge against grizzlies? In part, it’s a question of rhetoric: Genetic testing for bears has the same nonsensical ring as “asparagus technology” and “cow-flatulence research”, two other federally funded projects against which McCain has railed in recent years. But targeting conservation also allows the senator to shore up his conservative credentials, scoring points with the substantial subset of Republicans for whom “green” is still a dirty word.

McCain knows he’ll never win over green hardliners, so over the past year or so he’s deliberately distanced himself from the movement he once embraced: Last year he missed every major environmental Senate vote, earning a zero rating from the League of Conservation Voters. In this context, McCain’s contempt for the bear-conservation project is entirely in character: It’s a signal to conservatives that McCain is back on message – a little more grizzled, and a lot less green.