Republican presidential hopeful John McCain is a well-known critic of frivolous government spending otherwise known as pork: those pricey projects that legislators routinely—and surreptitiously—slip into appropriations packages to benefit their own districts and bring them coveted votes. But scientists charge that an important study of grizzly bear DNA has gotten caught in the crosshairs as the veteran Arizona lawmaker attempts to showcase his creds as a crusader against wasteful government spending.

It is unclear why McCain, who has taken a firm stand on some other environmental issues—he believes more needs to be done to curtail global warming—considers the research to be a waste of time and money, and his press office did not respond to repeated e-mails and phone calls for comment. Yet, he is apparently so "outraged" that he takes a dig at it in a campaign TV spot in which an announcer declares:

"233 million for a bridge to nowhere. Outrageous… Three million to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Unbelievable… A million dollars for a Woodstock Museum—in a bill sponsored by Hillary Clinton. Predictable… Who has the guts to stand up to wasteful government spending? One man. John McCain."

Currently the front-runner for the GOP nod, McCain also hits the research in speeches on the stump, cracking jokes about bear paternity tests and criminal investigations. "I don't know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money," McCain railed last month during a campaign stop in Clawson, Mich. Scientists, however, are not amused: They insist that the study is not only worth every penny but that the $3-million price tag cited in the ad is, in a word, wrong.

In fact, Congress over the past five years has forked over a total of $4.8 million to study the genetic material of Montana's grizzly bears, according to Katherine Kendall, a research biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Kendall heads the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, which is aimed at obtaining the first accurate population estimate of grizzlies living in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem—eight million acres of land in northwestern Montana that encompasses Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.

"This is not pork barrel at all," says Richard Mace, a research biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). "We have a federal law called the Endangered Species Act and [under this law] the federal government is supposed to help identify and conserve threatened species."

The grizzly has been listed as a threatened species since 1975 and scientists say that it is essential to get a handle on the population to preserve it. But, according to Kendall, until the feds decided to invest in this grizzly bear DNA study, researchers lacked the funds to conduct research at the scale necessary to get a reliable measure.

In 2002 Kendall assembled a scientific panel with representatives from the USGS, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and FWP, along with other scientific and environmental organizations to determine the best way to measure the remaining grizzly population of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. It recommended setting up barbed wire hair-snagging stations to painlessly pluck fur from passing bears that would be used for DNA fingerprinting, a technique employed to distinguish individuals of the same species by the differences in their genetic material. This is the only way to accurately estimate population in such heavily forested terrain, where bears are difficult to spot, says Chris Servheen, a grizzly expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In response, the USGS set aside $250,000 to launch the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project; the next year, Congress stepped in to provide additional funding, and from 2003 to 2007 appropriated $4.8 million to the effort, Kendall says.

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."