Is BOEMRE Harrassing Polar Bear Biologist Charles Monnett?

by Marlo Lewis on August 11, 2011

in Blog, Features

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Last month, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) suspended wildlife biologist Charles Monnett, who is being investigated by the Department of Interior’s (DOI’s) inspector general (IG). Monnett is the lead author of a 2006 study (linking loss of Arctic sea ice to the first documented finding of drowned polar bears.  The paper helped galvanize support for DOI’s listing of the bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Al Gore touted the study in An Inconvenient Truth.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) condemned the IG investigation as a “witch hunt” (Greenwire, Aug. 10, 2011, subscription required). Last week, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Greenpeace sent a letter to DOI Secretary Ken Salazar accusing BOEMRE of trying to muzzle scientists whose research may impede the granting of permits to drill for oil and gas in the bear’s Arctic habitat.

The transcript of the IG’s February 23, 2011 interrogation of Monnett shows that the IG “sent agents with no scientific training to ask decidedly unscientific questions about bizarre allegations relating to the polar bear paper,” CBD and Greenpeace contend. I can’t help but agree. What’s going on?

DOI officials say the investigation has nothing to do with drilling permits or the scientific integrity of Monnett’s research. As Greenwire reported last week:

BOEMRE spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz in an email said that the investigation has nothing to do with drilling. “There is absolutely no connection between any aspect of our review and approval of Shell’s Exploration Plan and Dr. Charles Monnett,” she said. “As we stated last week, the agency placed Dr. Monnett on administrative leave for reasons having nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting. Any suggestions or speculation to the contrary are wrong.”

According to yesterday’s Greenwire, “a leaked memo to Monnett from the IG referenced possible procurement violations related to an ongoing study at the University of Alberta called Populations and Source of Recruitment in Polar Bears: Movement Ecology in the Beaufort Sea.”

But during the Feb. 23 interrogation, the IG agents do not discuss procurement issues. Rather, they claim to be investigating “allegations of scientific misconduct,” which one agent describes as “basically, uh, wrong numbers, uh miscalculations” (p. 83). Most of the questions relate to the polar bear study — the Monnett team’s observational M.O., their data, and assumptions.

I see no signs of scientific misconduct in Monnett’s study, and the Feb. 23 interview brought none to light. Monnett and his team observed four drowned bears after an abrupt wind storm, three within the “transect” surveyed by their aircraft. Since the transect covers one-nineth (11%) of the total study area (640 square kilometers), the team concluded it is “likely that many other bears also drowned but were not seen.” How many? Well, 9 x 3 = 27.

This is the source of Al Gore’s claim, in An Inconvenient Truth (p. 146), that “A new scientific study shows that, for the first time, polar bears have been drowning in significant numbers.” Gore, naturally, indulges in rhetorical license. ”Shows” suggests empirical proof. Monnett’s team made clear that a “likely” body count of 27 drowned bears depends on the assumption that the transect they surveyed was typical of the larger study area. “Have been drowning” suggests an ongoing process. Monnett’s team observed four drowned bears on one day in September 2004. 

Surely it was inevitable that zealots like Gore would ignore the qualifications and exaggerate the certainity and magnitude of the drowning polar bear problem. Maybe Monnett hoped this would happen. Nonetheless, it is not scientific misconduct to present research that politicians and activists exploit for their own agendas. This was in fact the first recorded observation of drowned polar bears. It coincided with the biggest decline in polar sea ice coverage during the study period (1979-2004). It was worth reporting in a scientific study, and scientists are supposed to draw properly caveated inferences from what they observe.

Could BOEMRE or DOI’s IG be a hotbed of climate change skeptics or a cabal of “drill baby drill” advocates out to punish Monnett for his influential polar bear study? I have no idea. This much is abundantly clear:

  • The IG agents’ claim to be investigating “allegations of scientific misconduct” flatly contradicts the DOI spokesperson’s claim that the investigation has “nothing to do with scientific integrity.”
  • The IG agents in the Feb. 23 interview bumble and stumble over basic algebra and utterly fail to reveal evidence of scientific misconduct.
  • If the transcript is indicative of the larger IG investigation, we may infer that Monnett is “likely” a target of political harassment.
  • If that proves to be the case, climate change skeptics, many of whom have been on the receiving end of threats and bullying, should roundly condemn the abuse.
Paul August 12, 2011 at 2:48 am

The author of this piece fails to mention, quite a few things about Monnett’s polar bear paper, like the fact he has no data to back up his claims. He didn’t keep any record of the interviews of local pilots that support his claims that this is a recent/new phenominon, he dind’t actually make a physical examination of any of the bears, that he infers that climate change is responsible for their deaths when it is more likely local weather patters like “wind storms” are responsible, or the fact that his wife was one of the people who peer reviewed his paper and didn’t declare any possible conflict of interest.

The man was out there to study wales, but instead he writes about polar bears, and gets them put on the endangered species list; and the response is “trust us” we know better than you. I’m sorry, but No! I am not going to trust people, who claim to have my best interest at heart; doubt is a healthy human response, and is in fact an important part of the scientific process; even though the global warming climate sceintist would perfer otherwise.

P Klaput August 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I am not a wildlife scientist but I do know something about collecting evidence to be later assessed in the courtroom. If somebody asked me to look into polar bear populations I would do no less than the following:

1. Record the GPS coords of every found polar bear and extensively photograph their condition as found. Note that animals recovered in water in cold conditions may have been preserved and drifted some distance.

2. Collect and preserve every dead polar bear found.

3. Hire a specialist in Polar bears to conduct a necropsy to determine cause of death in each example.

4. Have a polar bear specialist assess how a semi aquatic animal such as a polar bear can drown in their normal habitat and how often this animal has been found to die this way and it what conditions.

5. Have a specialist in water currents in the habitat determine where the bear most likley drifted from.

6. Do not perform any statistical expression to expand findings beyond what the actual evidence reveals. That is, don’t assume the same number of dead bears will be found in other areas not examined.

I am sure I can think of more but if Monnett did not perform any of the above, than scientists like him should study basic forensic field craft.

P. Klaput

Tenney Naumer August 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Very much suggest commenters read the full transcript of the February interview of Dr. Charles Monnett. His records are quite precise and there were multiple witnesses.

Some of the questions asked by the so-called IG special agents are jaw dropping.

I await with anticipation the transcript of the interview of August 9th.

Tenney Naumer August 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Very much suggest commenters read the full transcript of the February interview of Dr. Charles Monnett. His records are quite precise and there were multiple witnesses.

Eli Rabett August 21, 2011 at 8:57 am

Eric May just fell through the ice

J.P. Travis August 30, 2011 at 12:12 am

“Monnett and his team observed four drowned bears after an abrupt wind storm…”

You are being as unscientific and inaccurate as Monnett was. What Monnet observed was four dead bears (which mysteriously turned into three dead bears elsewhere in his paper). Four dead bears is not the same thing as four drowned bears. As we all know, there was a fierce wind storm before the observation. Since polar bears are not immortal, you can surmise that there are dead ones here and there, and maybe those four bears (or three, we’ll never know for sure) simply got washed into the water from where they died, or where they were resting near-death from old age, or whatever. We will never know. Certainly it is a sorry sort of scientist who sees four carcasses floating in the water and jumps to the conclusion that earns him the most notice and infamy.

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