Polar bears drowning in an Alaskan sea because the ice packs are melting—it’s the iconic image of the global warming debate.
But the validity of the science behind the image—presented as an ignoble testament to our environment in peril byin his film —is now part of a federal investigation that has the environmental community on edge.
Special agents from the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office are questioning the two government scientists about the paper they wrote on drowned polar bears, suggesting mistakes were made in the math and as to how the bears actually died, and the department is eyeing another study currently underway on bear populations.
Biologist Charles Monnett, the lead scientist on the paper, was placed on administrative leave July 18. Fellow biologist Jeffrey Gleason, who also contributed to the study, is being questioned, but has not been suspended.
The disputed paper was published by the journal Polar Biology in 2006, and suggests that the “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.”
It galvanized the environmental movement that led to the bear’s controversial listing in 2008 as threatened, and it is now protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Although the four dead bears cited in the paper were observed from 1,500 feet during flights over the Beaufort Sea, and the carcasses were never recovered or examined, Gleason told investigators it is likely the creatures drowned in a sudden windstorm that produced 30-knot winds, not for lack of an ice pack.
“We never mentioned global warming in the paper,” Gleason told the investigators, according to the transcript.
“But it’s inferred,” responded investigator Eric May. “That’s why the world took it up as a global warming tangent.”
Gleason told investigators that reaction to his and Monnett’s paper was overblown and spun out of context.
“I think these sorts of things tend to mushroom, and the interpretation gets popularized,” Gleason said. “Something very small turns into this big snowball coming down the mountain, and that’s, I think, what happened with this paper.”
Gleason concedes that the study had a major impact on the controversial listing of the bear as an endangered species because of global warming.
“As a side note, talking about my former supervisor, he actually sent me an e-mail at one point saying, ‘You’re the reason polar bears got listed,’” Gleason said.
Monnett now manages $50 million in studies as part of his duties as a wildlife biologist with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Investigators are also examining Monnet’s procurement of one of those research studies on polar bears conducted by Canada’s University of Alberta, as well as the “disclosure of personal relationships and preparation of the scope of work,” according to a July 29 memo from the Interior Department’s inspector general’s office.
Additionally, investigators are asking questions about the peer review work on Monnett’s drowned polar bear paper, which was done by his wife, Lisa Rotterman, as well as Andrew Derocher, the lead researcher on the Canadian study under review by the inspector general’s office.
Monnett is being legally defended by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which posted the interviews the inspector general’s office conducted with both scientists on its website.
PEER calls Monnett’s work “groundbreaking research,” and says the investigation is a political attempt to “impugn his observations on polar bears’ vulnerability to retreating sea ice.”
“With each interview, it becomes more outrageous that government funds are being spent on this crackpot probe while paying Dr. Monnett’s salary to sit at home,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER.
“This seven-page paper, which had undergone internal peer review, management review and outside peer review coordinated by journal editors, galvanized scientific and public appreciation for the profound effects that climate change may already be having in the Arctic,” PEER said in another statement in support of Monnett.
’s Justice Department has already declined to pursue any criminal prosecution in the probe, but the scientists still face possible administrative action for any wrongdoing, the inspector general said in the memo.
With investigators suggesting his research is collapsing, Monnett was defensive in the interview, and asked for the inspectors’ credentials to question his work or second-guess his calculations.
For example, there was some confusion as to whether it was three or four dead bears used in the calculation to determine the ratio of survival, and whether Monnett assumed that four swimming bears seen the week earlier were the same polar bears recorded as dead in the next survey. The statistic in question was the percentage of bears likely to survive when swimming in a storm—Monnett estimated it to be around 25%, whereas investigators put the number at more than 57%.
“Is there a potential we made a mistake, and the peer reviewers didn’t catch it? Possibly,” Gleason said.
If the scientists had reported the 57% figure, investigator May said, “how people were taking this and exaggerating the results, probably may not have happened in terms of the world taking your study as attributing [the drownings to] global warming.”
After nearly two hours of Monnett defending his work to investigators, Ruch from PEER asked the officials to explain what allegations are being made against Monnett.
May said they are examining the “wrong numbers,” “miscalculations” and “scientific misconduct.”
“Well, that’s not scientific misconduct anyway,” Monnett said. “If anything, it’s sloppy.”
“I mean, that’s not—I mean, I mean, the level of criticism that they seem to have leveled here, scientific misconduct suggests that we did something deliberately to deceive or to change it,” Monnett said.
“I sure don’t see any indication of that in what you’re asking me about,” Monnett said.
The actual survey Monnett was conducting when he observed the dead bears in 2004 was the migration of bowhead whales. Investigators questioned how he later obtained data for a table listing live and dead polar bear sightings from 1987 to 2004.
“So how could you make the statement that no dead polar bears were observed” during that time period? May asked.
“Because we talked to the people that had flown the flights, and they would remember whether they had seen any dead polar bears,” Monnett said.
Asked whether he had any documentation to back that up, Monnett said that he did not.
“Science is about making the best case you can to test your hypothesis,” Monnett said. “You assemble your arguments and your data, you put it out there, and you see who’s going to knock it down.”
“And surprisingly, nobody, you know, knocked this down in any way. Everybody was just kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, four dead polar bears. Okay, that’s kind of cool,’ ” Monnett said.
Dr. Rob Roy Ramey, a biologist who specializes in endangered species scientific issues for Wildlife Science International, Inc., reviewed Monnett’s paper as well as the inspector general’s interviews for HUMAN EVENTS and said that the authors made unwarranted assumptions and large extrapolations based on a single event.
“They did not know if the polar bears actually drowned, they assumed that they had drowned. There were no statistical tests, just extrapolations made with no accounting for measurement error,” Ramey said.
“The paper gives the appearance that rigorous surveying was done for polar bears, when it was not,” Ramey said.
“They were flying at 1,500 feet with the purpose of looking for bowhead whales, which are much larger and easier to spot.”
Ramey also says he sees a conflict of interest for Monnett’s wife to be part of the internal peer review, and questioned the awarding of a contract to Derocher, who also participated in the peer review.
“That’s not impartial,” Ramey said. “It’s really important that peer review be truly independent. If they can’t be, then everyone has to state their conflict right up front.”
“I think it’s very illustrative of the problems with government research on endangered species, and raises the question as to whether government should be in the business of science,” Ramey said.
Numerous studies contributed to the bear’s listing as a protected species, including the paper on polar bear drowning, which was cited in the Federal Register’s proposed rule.
In making the announcement May 14, 2008, to protect the bear under the Endangered Species Act, the Interior Department said the listing “is based on the best available science, which shows the loss of sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat.”
The Interior Department said it would modify regulatory language “to prevent abuse of this listing to erect a backdoor climate policy outside our normal system of political accountability.”
As part of the Endangered Species Act listing, the department said work would continue with scientists to monitor polar bear populations and trends, as well as the effects of oil and gas operations in the Beaufort Sea region.
“Power, money, authority and recognition come with listings on the endangered species list,” Ramey said.
Investigators conducted a second interview with Monnett on Tuesday. PEER said in a statement afterward that his “2006 peer-reviewed journal article on drowned polar bears remains the focus of the inquiry.”
, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that the government is expected to “spend trillions of dollars to save the world from global warming on the basis of what a few scientists say.”
“There needs to be due diligence, and we need to challenge and investigate every single claim. The public expects that,” Ebell said. “But we find over and over that shoddy science has been put forward, and in some cases, dishonest and manipulated science, and they say, ‘Trust us,’ ” Ebell said.
“It’s extremely irresponsible.”