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Dead polar bears and political storms

A dead bear in the Beaufort Sea photographed on September 14, 2004. It was observed by Dr. Charles Monnett and his colleague, Jeff Gleason, during an aerial survey.
Minerals Management Service photo
A dead bear in the Beaufort Sea photographed on September 14, 2004. It was observed by Dr. Charles Monnett and his colleague, Jeff Gleason, during an aerial survey.
Minerals Management Service photo
A dead bear in the Beaufort Sea photographed on September 14, 2004. It was observed by Dr. Charles Monnett and his colleague, Jeff Gleason, during an aerial survey.
Minerals Management Service photo

Longtime polar bear researcher Dr. Charles Monnett may be back at work after being sidelined earlier this year, but his life at a federal offshore oil agency isn't the same.

The man who in 2006 gained overnight notoriety for co-authoring a brief article about drowned polar bears in the Arctic Ocean is now focusing his attention on how many ships are passing through the Bering Strait and the traffic's potential impact on marine life and traditional hunting.

Monnett, who works for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Regulatory Enforcement, has lost oversight of his prior projects as a result of an investigation by the federal Office of the Inspector General into allegations that he committed scientific misconduct. The inquiry has simultaneously raised questions about the quality of Monnett's work and the motives behind it -- as well as the appropriateness of the inquiry itself, which made national news this summer.

Monnett's attorneys believe the investigation is no less than an attempt to squash scientific freedom and choke the credibility of government scientists whose findings might obstruct oil development.

At issue has been whether Monnett ever fudged his data or improperly abused his position overseeing contracts in order to influence how other scientists rated his work.

But the investigation and repeated questioning of Monnett have so far failed to back up those allegations, said Jeff Ruch, executive director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility -- a nonprofit that aims to protect government employees who work in environmental agencies, which is providing legal assistance to Monnett.

Fuzzy images

On Wednesday, after combing through items returned to Monnett that had been seized by investigators in February, Ruch made an interesting discovery: raw interview notes from September 2004 survey flights, including images of a dead bear, thought drowned, that would later become the basis for an article that posited to the world that receding ice, brought on by climate change, was the culprit.

With less ice to climb onto for a rest or to use as a sort of conveyor belt along hunting grounds in the Arctic Ocean, the bears have been forced to make longer swims. Longer swims can mean greater exhaustion and risk of death. This is in part why polar bears were listed as a threatened species in 2008.

A white object on the water

In a 2007 interview, Monnett described resuming the 2004 survey flights after being delayed by a storm and coming across "a white object in the water that looked weird," then realizing "it was a drowned bear."

Photos were taken but were "unrecognizable," he recalled in the 2007 interview.

One of the bears was so bloated that it could be seen for miles. From the air the dead bears looked like big white blobs in the water. Having witnessed four dead bears in one month -- when in the past 20 to 25 years, only 12 had been documented -- Monnett and his co-surveyor believed the find was significant. By spring 2006, they had gone public with the discovery, their theory that the bears had drowned, and that climate change had played a role.

Although the Inspector General has said Monnett was under investigation for matters unrelated to the drowning observations, those very observations have continued to surface during interviews with Monnett by Inspector General agents. The Inspector General has also raised questions about how Monnett, who at one time oversaw $50 million of active contracts, doled out the money.

During an Aug. 9 interview of Monnett, investigator Eric May wanted to know if Monnett had intentionally played up a global warming angle, a theory based on an email exchange between Monnett's co-author and that co-author's former PhD advisor. Here's an excerpt of May and Monnett’s conversation:

May: "Did you intentionally omit any reference of the bad weather in the abstract introduction and/or study area and method sections of your manuscript in order to deemphasize the storm and emphasize your global warming angle as referenced in this 2004 email."

Monnett: "No."

May: "OK. Did you intentionally underemphasize the potential impact of bad weather on polar bear populations in order to draw attention to the global warming angle to ensure that this paper would get published?"

Monnett:  "Absolutely not."

Investigators seemed particularly concerned Monnett didn't include more weather references in his article. The dead, floating bears were observed following a storm with high winds and big waves, and the implication in the line of questioning is that it was the storm, and not the swimming, that caused the deaths.

Monnett countered that while the storm played a role, had there been more sea ice, the waves would not have been as large and the bears would not have been forced to swim as far. Bears with access to ice don't drown, he told the investigators.

Also during the interview, investigator Richard Larrabee questioned Monnett's dealings with a polar bear expert at the University of Alberta who had helped review the drowned polar bear article and who was conducting a study that Monnett thought the Minerals Management Service, the predecessor to BOEMRE, should co-participate in.

Larrabee said to Monnett, "…it appears that the two of you created a relationship wherein you were giving him a $1.1 million contract, no strings attached, and in return he was helping you publish your observations. And such relationships perforce, create a situation where in his credibility as an objective peer reviewer is damaged, and your credibility as an unbiased government scientist is also damaged," Larrabee observed during the interview.

Monnett fired back that the scientist in question -- Andy Derocher -- wasn't a peer reviewer but had merely, like a lot of other people, read the paper, corrected grammar and suggested it get published.

"That's not a relationship," Monnet said to Larrabee, according to a transcript of the exchange. "That's what we do on any manuscript we submit ... we send it out for those kinds of reviews before we submit it to a journal where it gets peer reviewed. He had nothing to do with the peer review. None of our reviewers had anything to do with the peer review."

Larrabee said in the interview that Monnett's bosses thought the process by which Derocher was awarded the contract was "egregious to procurement integrity and highly inappropriate." The statements were made earlier this summer after Larrabee and other agents shared email correspondence between the two scientists with Monnett's bosses, coinciding with Monnett being yanked from contract oversight and his administrative leave.

Monnett maintains his supervisors knew all along how the process worked and that he had done nothing wrong.

He has since been allowed to return to work, although in a different capacity, and Derocher's study, which was also interrupted, has since resumed.

'Pawing through things'

Still, the investigation into Monnett's dealings in BOEMRE continues.

"They are still sort of pawing through things," Ruch said, noting that he's heard the investigators are now looking at a bird study Monnett was involved in.

The ongoing inquiry into the quality of Monnett's work and any ulterior motives or agendas he may have had when writing papers or administering contracts has attracted the attention of at least one member of Congress who has demanded answers about the investigation.

Last month, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican of Oklahoma who is ranking member of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, wrote the Inspector General to request information on how the investigation got started, saying that Monnett's polar bear work has played a role in shaping the climate change debate, including legislation and the listing of polar bears as threatened in 2008.

In an Aug. 25 letter, acting Inspector General Mary Kendall wrote back in an attempt to "quell speculation," saying that about 18 months ago, a credible, career employee at the Interior Department came forward alleging acts of scientific misconduct. Kendall said "the OIG investigates allegations of scientific misconduct by following the facts wherever they lead."

No more details will be released until the investigation is completed, she said.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com