WASHINGTON – 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 $4.8 million, five-year study of grizzly bear DNA criticized by Republican presidential candidate John McCain 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 rebounding.
The first-ever scientific census shattered earlier estimates that said there were at least 250-350 bears roaming the area. More recent data placed the minimum population at around 563 bears.
"There has never been any baseline information on population size," said Katherine Kendall, the lead researcher, who said the results speak for themselves. "There has been huge investments of time and money to recover [the grizzly bear] but they don't know whether their actions have been successful."
McCain, in stump speeches and in an advertisement earlier this year, erroneously said the study cost $3 million, adding "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money."
The study was backed by Montana ranchers, farmers and Republican leaders as a step toward taking the species off the endangered species list.
Since 1975, the bear has been threatened in the lower 48 states, a status that bars hunting and restricts any kind of development that could diminish the bear's population.
"If it is going to remove it from the list, it is money well spent," said former Montana Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, McCain supporter, and backer of the research.
When asked about McCain's stance, Martz said "unless you live among these issues it is pretty hard to understand what is going on."
Former Sen. Conrad Burns, the chairman of McCain's campaign in Montana, helped secure the funding. It was paid in part through add-ons to the U.S. Geological Survey budget, and a $1.1 million earmark for the Forest Service in 2004.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is in charge of regulating endangered species, is currently reviewing the bears' status in Montana as part of a five-year review required by the Endangered Species Act.
The study's results will help biologists determine whether the bear still needs federal protection, a conclusion due out early next year.
Chris Servheen, the Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator for the service said the study "was an investment in the recovery of an icon of the American West, which is the grizzly bear."
"All the things people have been doing are making a difference," he said of the findings. "This gives us some feedback that the bears are doing really well."