Mocked tally indicates grizzly bears on rebound in Montana

The majestic grizzly bear, once king of the Western wilderness but threatened with extinction for a third of a century, has roared back in Montana.

The finding, from a $4.8million, five-year study of grizzly bear DNA that Republican presidential candidate John McCain mocked as “pork barrel” spending, could help ease restrictions on oil and gas drilling, logging and other development.

Researchers with the U.S.Geological Survey announced Tuesday that there are approximately 765 bears in northwestern Montana. That's the largest population of grizzly bears documented there in more than 30 years, and a sign that the species could be at long last recovering.

The first-ever scientific census shattered earlier estimates that said there were at least 250-350 bears roaming an 8million-acre area stretching from north of Missoula to the Canadian border. More recent data placed the minimum population at about 563 bears.

“This is two and a half times the number of bears previously estimated,” said Katherine Kendall, the lead researcher, who said the results speak for themselves. “There is no evidence that the population size was ever severely reduced.”

In a February 2003 floor speech, McCain poked fun at the project, describing a scenario where the DNA would be used to help a bear cub find its father and pin down which bear stole hikers' food.

McCain, in stump speeches and in a campaign commercial earlier this year, erroneously said the cost of the study was $3 million and added: “I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money.” The commercial said the expenditure was “unbelievable.”

Supporters of the research included Montana ranchers, farmers and Republican leaders. They pushed for the study as a step toward taking the grizzly bear off the endangered species list. Since 1975, the bear has been threatened in the lower 48 states, a status that bars hunting and restricts development that can diminish its population.

Last year, after more than 30years of research, the grizzly bear population around Yellowstone National Park was deemed recovered.

“Let's make this an Endangered Species Act success … get them off the list so we can manage them here in Montana,” said John Youngberg, vice president of government affairs for the Montana Farm Bureau, who said that farmers who mistakenly shoot grizzly bears or do so to protect their land face $25,000 fines under current regulations.

His explanation for McCain's comments was that it was “silly season.”

The McCain campaign did not return requests for comment.