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The Un-Bear-Able Irony of Earmarks

The world is a complicated place. Full of irony, not always the laughing kind. Sen. John McCain might take note.

Over the years, McCain has had fun suggesting that the main utility of an earmark-funded study of grizzly bear DNA might be to help grizzly cubs secure child support from errant fathers.

McCain had so fun with this quip, he couldn't stop using it even after the study was released. It showed a much larger than expected rebound in grizzly populations in northwestern Montana - which, ironically, could mean the opening of several areas to oil and gas exploration.

Uh ... maybe that study was worth something after all. Drill, baby, drill!

One definition of irony is incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs. The actuality of this scenario is that the five-year, $4.8 million study carried out by researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey found 765 bears living in northwestern Montana, the largest population documented in more than 30 years.

This is good news not only for environmentalists who have worked to protect the bear but also for those whose livelihoods have at times been threatened by them. If grizzlies are taken off the Endangered Species list, a farmer or rancher who kills one to protect his livestock will not be fined $25,000. That's meaningful when you consider many farmers and ranchers in Montana might not make more than $25,000 a year. Funny? Not so funny?

The research used to document these fierce, lumbering, 300- to 800-pound iconoclasts involved 200 field workers collecting hair samples from 2,500 barbed-wire hair traps and 4,800 trees that grizzlies rub against to scratch themselves. Aged, pureed fish guts and cattle blood were used to lure the bears to the trees; 34,000 hair samples were caught in the traps and analyzed. No time for irony here.

This research was undertaken in remote high-mountain areas where the grizzlies live. It, no doubt, was a grisly undertaking fraught with risk and unknown consequences. Did I say that a grizzly on the run can reach a speed of 35 miles per hour? Or that a favorite quote attributed to grizzlies in Montana is, "Those last tourists were tasty. Please send more?" Or that Stephen Colbert's hysterical warnings about bears eating people aren't entirely without merit? No time for satire here. Let's hear it for those researchers!

The study made no mention as to paternity and possible actions by the grizzly cubs. Meanwhile, reports are that Gov. Sarah Palin has requested a similar earmark - a $3.5 million study of the DNA of harbor seals. This study would try to "understand the declines in population and provide for population restoration." Who would have thought? Funny? Not so funny?

What's next? Polar bears?

One thing is certain: presidential election campaigns make good use of irony.