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Like I Was Saying

McCain’s Grizzly Aversion

Commentary: Like I Was Saying ...

There is little stigma attached to Montana. Living here for the better part of a decade, I’ve found the out-of-state response to my adopted home is one of curiosity or adulation or both. Whereas Californians, whether deserved, are often blamed for ruining much of the rural West and New Yorkers the East. But with the run-up to the presidential election, and scrutiny sharpening on Congressional earmarks, Montana’s polished image may be showing signs of rust.

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has campaigned equally as a man with strong national security credentials and a fiscal conservative who hates pork-barrel spending with a passion. In a recent commercial aired in several states (where many of our tourists live) he blasts three federally-funded projects as examples of government waste: the infamous “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska that would have linked a handful of people there to the mainland; Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton’s proposal for a museum at the site of the Woodstock concert in New York; and a study of the “DNA of bears” in Montana. The latter he called “unbelievable.”

“Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending?” the tough-as-nails narrator asks in closing. “One man. John McCain.”

The problem is McCain has grouped the bear project, which scientists have lauded as a rousing success, with two others that are blatantly wasteful. Along with chiding the study in television ads, McCain often jokes when campaigning, “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminals, but it was a waste of money.”

That would be funny, if it were true. The real goal of the project is to get a head count on the number of grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide ecosystem. “There’s never been any information about the status of this population,” Katherine Kendall, who lives in Columbia Falls and spearheaded the project, told the Washington Post. “We didn’t know what was going on until this study.”

An ardent fiscal conservative could argue that the federal government should have no role in funding wildlife research. If the feds want to throw money at a project, a critic could say, it should be included with the National Park Service’s budget; after all, another condemnation of earmarks is that they aren’t scrutinized closely.

McCain could make this argument, except for one giant detail: former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican, secured funds for the questionable project and is now chairman of the McCain campaign in Montana. The presidential nominee has done well disassociating himself from pork as he unabashedly associates with those who basked in it – even asking them to work for his campaign.

It’s true that traditionally Montana’s politicians secure a large share of earmarks for their constituents’ benefit. Citizens Against Government Waste ranked our state the seventh-worst pork offender in 2006. Alaska was No. 1. North Dakota ranked sixth. So panning Montana’s U.S. lawmakers for a common political practice McCain disagrees with is fair game.

On the other hand, lumping a project to study the grizzly bear population here with one that would honor a New York music festival is, to say the least, a stretch. With all due respect to Jimi Hendrix, investing in science is not the same as commemorating the music of baby boomers. To then have the man who secured the grizzly study’s funding now running your Montana campaign reeks of hypocrisy. McCain should attempt to score points and laugh lines at someone else’s expense.

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