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Drowned polar bears: Probe of Arctic scientist concluded

Jill Burke
Photo courtesy USGS

An investigative report more than two years in the making over the practices of an Alaska polar bear scientist, his colleague and their work was released in late June -- but the government refuses to make its results public, at least for now. Dr. Charles Monnett and Jeffrey Gleason observed drowned polar bears after a storm in 2004 and wrote about the sightings in a scientific article published in 2006.

Those findings, which became a clarion call warning of the perils of a melting Arctic, have been a controversial target of the investigation. The report involving Monnett and Gleason "is circulating within the U.S. Department of Interior but is still unavailable to the two scientists who are its subjects," according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which represents the men. 

The investigation has pitted an agency that regulates offshore oil development against scientists whose field notes from eight years ago could have impacted the very industry that's in search of new wealth in the arctic. That's where polar bears, who now receive heightened protection under the Endangered Species Act, live.

The final report of the investigation was received by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on June 27.

"The report recommends that BOEM take 'administrative actions.' The IG (office of Inspector General) has taken the position that the report will remain in 'open' or unreleased status until BOEM makes a decision on whether to implement or reject the IG recommendations," PEER stated in a press release Monday morning, noting that BOEM is the same agency that employs Monnett and Gleason. "It is unclear whether the recommended 'administrative actions' are disciplinary measures against the scientists or procedural changes in agency research projects -- or both."

The announcement came hours before U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was to hold a press conference in Anchorage after a weekend spent touring the Arctic.

PEER has long criticized the appropriateness of the inquiry, citing Obama-era rules implemented to help shield scientists and their work from politically-motivated attacks. In an attempt to get investigators to follow the new procedures, PEER filed its own complaint, but that complaint hit a dead end in what PEER calls the IG's refusal "to follow agency-wide scientific-integrity policies, insisting that it is statutorily exempt from any restraints on its science-related activities."

During the inquiry, Monnett has been suspended, reinstated, and then assigned to new duties. Gleason now works in another state.

According to PEER, BOEM has 90 days to make a decision regarding the report. But, BOEM may choose to do nothing, which could effectively hold the report in perpetual "open" status and keep it out of public view.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com