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Federal polar bear scientist back on the job

Reporting from Seattle

The arcane world of polar bear research was rocked recently by the suspension of a federal scientist in Alaska whose research on polar bear drownings in the Arctic raised major concerns about climate change. But the researcher was reinstated to his job Friday — and an inquiry has been launched to determine whether the Obama administration tried to interfere with his research.

The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement confirmed that Charles Monnett — whose suspension in July sparked an outcry among fellow scientists, climate change researchers and opponents of offshore oil and gas drilling — has been recalled from six weeks of administrative leave. But he won't be resuming his previous work managing research contracts, the bureau said.

Agency officials have sought to downplay the incident, saying Monnett was suspended for improperly administering contracts, not for documenting dead polar bears.

"There is no truth to any suggestion that the return to work is in any way tied to … allegations against bureau leadership," said Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for the bureau, which oversees oil and gas development in many of the same Arctic regions where polar bears are seeing their icy habitat shrink.

But the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is providing Monnett legal representation, has alleged that federal investigators targeted their initial questions primarily at a 2006 article he co-wrote in the journal Polar Biology.

That article documented a wave of polar bear drownings, probably because of a storm and the long distances the bears had to swim between diminishing ice floes. The article had been approved by Monnett's superiors and was peer reviewed before it was published, the group maintains.

"All the questions were on this paper, and whether it was complete and accurate. And this paper was a big deal — it helped galvanize popular understanding of the effects of climate change in the Arctic," the advocacy group's executive director, Jeff Ruch, said in an interview.

A transcript of the interview that agents from the Inspector General's Office initially conducted with Monnett suggests that they were investigating allegations of "scientific misconduct" apparently connected to the polar bear article. In it, the agents asked detailed questions about how Monnett and his co-author had assembled their data.

The investigation launched this month by the Interior Department's scientific integrity officer stems from the advocacy group's complaint that Monnett's suspension violates Obama administration rules that took effect in February. Those rules are designed to protect federal scientists from interference from outside the scientific process.

"There was a presidential directive that said the Obama administration won't tolerate political manipulation of science as it occurred under the [George W.] Bush administration," Ruch said. "So if the new policy is they're supposed to protect scientists from interference, this is a heck of a way to do that."

The integrity issues bureau officials have cited appear to relate not to the polar bear article but to Monnett's oversight of a Canadian research study, and to Monnett's admissions, as summarized in a letter to him from an agent of the inspector general earlier this year. In those admissions, Monnett is said to have acknowledged helping a Canadian researcher prepare a research funding proposal even though he was also responsible for deciding who was awarded the contract.

"The action has nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged," Schwartz said in an email.

"The return of an employee to work does not suggest that future administrative actions cannot/will not be taken," she added.

The agency briefly issued a stop-work order on the Canadian study, which was providing data on the movements of radio-collared polar bears being monitored by Canadian scientists. The Canadian government is paying $800,000 of the $2-million cost.

Meanwhile, the issue of whether polar bears' survival is even threatened by climate change was the issue of a new appeal filed Friday by the state of Alaska, which announced that it's joining an appeal of a federal judge's ruling upholding the bears' listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Alaska joins nearly three dozen other plaintiffs and interveners seeking to challenge the 2008 finding by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that polar bear numbers are likely to plummet in the face of shrinking sea ice unless strong steps are taken to protect them.

Conservationists are arguing that the government should go even further, and declare the bears "endangered." But Alaska officials said Friday it is unreasonable to adopt official protections -- which set aside much of the northern coast of Alaska as critical habitat for the bears -- when their numbers for the moment are robust.

The oil and gas industry and other business groups fear that polar bear protections could elicit new widespread regulations on energy development and other commerce by requiring steps to combat global warming across the country in the name of protecting the bears.

"For the first time under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government listed a species based on uncertain predictions of future threats of habitat loss in the distant future, rather than on actual observed population declines or threats to the species," Alaska Atty. Gen. John Burns said in a statement. "The government listed a species that is at an all-time historical high in population, with a relatively stable distribution and population throughout its range. The government's forecasts are replete with uncertainty and divergent outcomes that do not support the polar bear's threatened listing."

kim.murphy@latimes.com

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