The federal investigation into suspended wildlife biologist Charles Monnett has focused on the scientific merit of a 2006 article in which he and a colleague recorded their observations of apparently drowned polar bears in the Arctic, a watchdog group said Tuesday.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said Monnett was interviewed by the inspector general's office Tuesday.
Monnett was suspended last month by the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement pending results of an investigation into "integrity issues." The agency indicated that the suspension, which came amid an ongoing, months-long investigation, was related to how a polar bear research project was awarded and managed.
A stop work order, which had been placed on the project, has since been lifted.
PEER executive director Jeff Ruch said that Tuesday's nearly three-hour long interview revolved around the article and the project, including Monnett's role during procurement.
Ruch, who monitored the interview via teleconference, said Monnett was also asked about any connections he had to non-governmental organizations and fundraising for environmental groups.
He said the suggestion was raised that Monnett was somehow involved in a covert campaign to promote the issue of climate change. Ruch said it could be several weeks before a transcript is available.
A bureau spokeswoman declined comment.
Separately Tuesday, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., wrote the acting director of the Interior Department's inspector general's office, seeking clarification on the purpose of the investigation into Monnett.
Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said Monnett's work has been cited by witnesses before his committee and provided "the foundation" for the government's decision in 2008 to list the bear as a threatened species, the first with its survival at risk due to global warming.
"As a result, critical habitat for the polar bear was designated, which added additional layers of onerous regulations to oil and gas development in 187,000 square miles of land in Alaska," he said, adding that accusations against Monnett's work "could be serious and have far reaching consequences."
The article, published in 2006 in the journal Polar Biology, is based on observations that Monnett and fellow scientist Jeffrey Gleason made in 2004. At the time, they were conducting an aerial survey of bowhead whales, and saw four dead polar bears floating in the water after a storm. In the peer-reviewed article, they said they were reporting, to the best of their knowledge, the first observations of the bears floating dead and presumed drowned while apparently swimming long distances.
Polar bears are considered strong swimmers, they wrote, but long-distance swims may exact a greater metabolic toll than standing or walking on ice in better weather.
They said their observations suggested the bears drowned in rough seas and high winds. They also added that the findings "suggest that drowning-related deaths of polar bears may increase in the future if the observed trend of regression of pack ice and/or longer open water periods continues."
The article and related presentations helped make the polar bear a symbol for the global warming movement.
Ruch said he is "mystified" that the inspector general's office "doesn't have better things to do."