She notes that her team of 250 scientists and researchers set up hair-snag stations at thousands of locations throughout the grizzly habitat, some as far as 30 miles (50 kilometers) from the nearest road. These wire setups do not harm the bears in any way, Servheen says: "It's no more than running a comb through your hair."
The team collected 34,000 samples of bear hair over a 14-week period in 2004, which it sent over the border to the Wildlife Genetics International laboratory in Nelson, British Columbia. By extracting and analyzing DNA in the strands, researchers were able to pinpoint the species (grizzly or black bear), gender, and individual identity of host bears. It took two years to analyze the large swath of samples and another to compile the data and conduct statistical analyses to estimate the size, distribution and genetic structure of the population as well as summarize the findings, which Kendall says she hopes to publish in a science journal by summer. (She refuses to reveal the results prior to publication.)
But numbers are only part of the story. Scientists say they also have to figure out how the population is changing to determine how to protect it. Toward that end, the Montana state government four years ago launched a $250,000 per annum effort to monitor grizzly population trends (separate from, but complementary to Kendall's study on population size), according to Mace, who is in charge of that project.
"There are no answers yet," he says, noting that it is too early to tell whether the population is increasing, decreasing or if it remains unchanged since 2004. But researchers are optimistic they will be able to fashion effective preservation measures once they have a better idea of [to vary] the population size—thanks to Kendall's study—and a solid understanding of trends.
Still, for many Americans who have never seen and probably never will see a grizzly bear, the question remains: Why should one bear population merit millions in taxpayer money?
The reason, grizzly expert Servheen says: the bears are a threatened species. He estimates that only about 1,500 still reside in the 48 contiguous states, compared with some 50,000 before the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century (a 97 percent population decline). The once far-reaching grizzly habitat, which stretched from the Mississippi River to California and ranged north to south from Alaska to Mexico, is today restricted to four western states: Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and Washington. In these states, only two populations—those living in and around Yellowstone National Park and in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem—number more than 50 bears and offer hope for long-term viability, Servheen says.
So is forking over huge chunks of change to protect grizzly bears "unbelievable"—or a joke—as McCain charges?
No way, scientists and environmentalists say. Protecting wildlife is expensive, but grizzlies are priceless, says Louisa Willcox, director of the Wild Bears Project for the National Resources Defense Council. "Grizzly bears are a symbol of our frontier past—of untamed wilderness," she says. "Lewis and Clark saw them eating buffalo carcasses on the American plains."
Not only are grizzlies "treasures of United States history," Servheen says, but they help us understand how effective our conservation efforts are. Despite their ferocious reputation, he notes, grizzlies are exquisitely sensitive to human activity and can only live on the wildest tracts of land. "They are an indicator of the health of ecosystems," he says, and they emblematize "the preservation of wilderness, which is becoming rarer every day."