Saturday, 4 October 2008

"I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal," McCain jokes,

... but actually, he knew.

In the presidential debate two Fridays ago, there were a number of statements made that really just blew my mind, how either candidate could say something with a straight face. McCain, for example, decided to go and dig up his old, dead horse, the Grizzly Bear Mark-Recapture study in the Norther Rockies.

Now, I'm fairly familiar with the mark-recapture study - it's right up my lab's alley, and even if it wasn't, its methods have revolutionized how we're approaching tricky census, and non-invasive DNA collection.

It's hard for some of us to wrap our heads around it, but in the Lower 48, Grizzlies were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species act. They weren't doing so hot for a while there. That listing obligated, by law, the government to take proactive steps to manage the bears so to support their conservation. One of the most important steps to conserving what you have is knowing what you have. That's a problem with bears.

See, bears move. They move a lot. Below timberline, sightablility becomes a serious issue, and above timberline, finding the buggers requires access that just isn't there. Add to that the average density of these large carnivores is generally low, the logistics and difficulties involved in traditional surveys are considerable.

Enter a smart biologist named Dr. Kendall, at the USGS. Dr. Kendall has a record with doing work with non-invasive sampling in bears, having worked out the constraints on hairsnags and faecal DNA extraction (something I unfortunately have experience in. :p), and she decided to use to use these non-invasive techniques to collect DNA from snags and traps to get an accurate count on how many bears there are in this recovering population.

Now, the results aren't out yet. They're in-part due in this month's issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management. To say I'm waiting with bated breath would be an understatement. But early press releases show that bear densities are over twice what was previously predicted. Now, I hate science-by-press-release, that's not how we do things in the peer-review world, but if these results pan out, it'll mean more mineral and gas exploration in the surrounding habitat. Something I think McCain wouldn't mind one bit.

If it pans out, it means the law worked, and these studies would mean we can ease back on spending money in areas where we're successful at conservation, and focus on other areas. I'm sure he's not pro-wasting money, is he? And if you look at the people who helped push the study - who included environmentalists, ranchers, farmers, and land developers (strange bedfellows) - he can't exactly pin this one on the Democrats.

Oh, and one last little detail. Three, actually. First, it didn't cost three million. It cost five. Big science projects aren't cheap, but we'll recoup that money easily in saved-funds. Second, McCain was lying when he said he didn't know if the Bear DNA project was for paternity or criminal purposes. He actually knows exactly what the study is for. Because, finally, he supported it and voted for it.

What was it Palin said last debate? Something about `being for something before they were against it?` Huh.

Here's some links:

Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project

US News on John McCain's complaints.

Scientific America on the Beef with Bears

Science Line's article on the same

Turns out Palin requested a similar project for Harbour Seals

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