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Grizzly jokes aside, will John McCain stand up to dog lovers?

November 12, 2010 |  2:31 pm


Sen. John McCain loved to crack jokes about DNA research on America's remaining grizzly bears. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue, or criminal, but it was a waste of money," McCain said, repeating the joke during his failed presidential campaign.

His campaign ads skewered such survey work:  "...Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable... Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending? One man. John McCain."

Wildlife biologists were hardly amused to see their successful project scorched by super-heated campaign rhetoric. It turns out that advances in DNA research are helping them get a comprehensive evaluation of the bear population that the government declared threatened with extinction 35 years ago. The feds are under obligation to study the bears, understand how many there are and whether the population is recovering.

Such genetic work has outlasted the campaign. One technique relies on barbed wire to snag bits of hair and hair follicles to gather DNA evidence. Another uses scat-sniffing dogs to find grizzly bear droppings for genetic and hormonal analysis. A story in Saturday's Los Angeles Times follows one detection dog that helps with wildlife surveys.

Such work has already claimed some success in keeping wildlife corridors open to prevent the small population of grizzlies in Yellowstone National Park from becoming even more genetically isolated and vulnerable to in-breeding and disease.

McCain continued to rail against wasteful government spending in his Senate reelection campaign this year. But he had edged away from the grizzly jokes after recruiting his former presidential running mate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, to help him fend off a challenge from the right. Instead of vilifying the big brown bear, Palin has made Mama Grizzlies attractive, even sexy, among American conservatives.

Now that McCain has won another Senate term, will he return to his maverick ways and resurrect the bear jokes?  The risks of political backlash may be even higher now that such genetic surveys are assisted by man's best friend.

-- Kenneth R. Weiss

Photo: Wildlife biologist Megan Parker collects grizzly bear scat found by Pepin, a Belgian Malinois and working detection dog. Pepin carries his reward -- a tug toy -- after using his superior sense of smell to locate the scat on a ranch in western Montana. Credit: Kenneth R. Weiss / Los Angeles Times