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Senator Inhofe Has Questions About Polar Bear Researcher Charles Monnett

Scott Schliebe/USFWS

"Polarbeargate," the federal investigation into suspended wildlife biologist Charles Monnett over undisclosed allegations, took further strange turns yesterday. First, Monnett was interviewed a second time by investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement's (BOEMRE's) inspector general's office.

Although the director of BOEMRE, Michael Bromwich, has stated that the investigation has "nothing to do with [Monnett's] scientific work, or anything relating to a 5-year-old journal article, as advocacy groups and the news media have incorrectly speculated," yesterday's 3-hour session focused exactly on those issues, says Jeff Ruch, the director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington, D.C., who monitored the interview via teleconferencing. And Ruch isn't the only one apparently who thinks that the investigation is indeed linked to the article and its conclusion that polar bears may experience higher death rates due to climate change: U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) has now entered the fray, sending a letter to BOEMRE, asking for more information about the Monnett inquiry .

In his letter, Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said that witnesses had cited Monnett's work and article to his committee. The study, he stated, provided "the foundation" for the decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species, the first whose survival is considered to be at risk because of 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 wrote, adding that accusations against Monnett's work "could be serious and have far reaching consequences."

But a spokesperson for the Center of Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute, one of the agencies that supported the polar bear's listing, says that Monnett's paper was only one of hundreds cited. The center and Greenpeace have written to Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and President Barack Obama's chief science adviser, John Holdren, seeking an explanation of Monnett's suspension.

Inhofe also wants BOEMRE to clarify the nature its investigation—as does Ruch's office. "We don't know where this investigation came from," he said. "But the bigger mystery is why they think anything needs to be investigated." BOEMRE has previously stated that the investigation and Monnett's suspension are based on concerns about how a new polar bear research project was awarded and is being managed. The new study is being carried out in conjunction with scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada and with U.S. and Canadian funds.

In yesterday's interview, many of the questions "focused on the peer-review process" of Monnett's 2006 article in Polar Biology, Ruch says. The article in question, Ruch notes, is simply "an observation note, not even a study." In it, Monnett and his co-author, Jeffrey Gleason, reported on their observation of four dead polar bears in the Arctic Ocean. It was the first known observation of such an event; the bears were thought to have drowned after swimming long distances. Monnett and Gleason's "observation note" was subjected to the journal's standard peer review, with the scientists answering questions from the reviewers and editors prior to publication. "We take that as a sign that the scientific process is working," Ruch says, "not as a sign, as the inspector general's office suggests, that a fraud has been perpetrated." Ruch said it seemed that Monnett's interrogators "do not understand the peer-review process." Ruch has previously voiced concerns about the investigators' lack of scientific understanding or background.

Monnett also faced questions about any connections he had to nongovernmental organizations and any fundraising for environmental groups. The questions seemed to suggest that Monnett was somehow part of a covert campaign to promote climate change, Ruch says: "They implied that he suggested in his paper that the bears died because of climate change. But he did not; it's absurd to even suggest this. He simply reported an observation." Ruch said that the investigators also seemed to believe that Monnett helped direct $1 million for the new polar bear study to University of Alberta scientist Andrew Derocher because he had been one of the reviewers. However, Ruch says that the contract was basically approved and awarded by contracting officers in Monnett's agency more than a year before the 2006 paper appeared. The study tracks polar bears and their movements from 2005 through 2012.

In a letter to Monnett last month, the inspector general stated that the recent interview would be "administrative in nature and the results will be provided to the BOEMRE director for appropriate action upon the conclusion of the investigation."

BOEMRE will release a full transcript of the interview with Monnett in a few weeks.