A U.S. government wildlife biologist whose work contributed to the listing of polar bears as a threatened species has been suspended, according to a group that supports government scientists.
Charles Monnett, a researcher in Anchorage with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement, was placed on paid administrative leave July 18 while the Interior Department’s inspector general investigates “integrity issues,” according to a copy of the suspension order provided by Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility or PEER.
Monnett is overseeing several scientific studies that would affect decisions on permits for oil and gas development, according to PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. The group filed a misconduct complaint today against government officials on Monnett’s behalf.
“All of the scientific contracts previously managed by Mr. Monnett are being managed by the highly qualified scientists at BOEMRE,” agency spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said today in an e-mail. Monnett’s suspension was reported earlier today by the Associated Press.
In 2006, Monnett and a colleague reported observations of polar bears drowning in open waters following a storm. The paper, published in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology,was cited by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its 2008 decision to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
President George W. Bush’s administration cited the effect of global warming on the projected decline in sea ice that polar bears depend on for survival.
Average temperatures in parts of the Arctic have warmed at 10 times the global average, leading to “major reductions in summer sea ice,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision. Less ice “may result in increases in bear mortality associated with swimming when there is little sea ice to buffer wave action.”
The designation became a symbol of the effects of climate change. “It caught public attention because it was the first sighting of drowned polar bears in open water,” Ruch said in an interview. “The bears were witnessed by other people. There are contemporaneous notes and there are photos, so we’re mystified as to what’s going on.”
The state of Alaska filed a lawsuit claiming the polar-bear decision would limit resource development and the economy.
A federal judge rejected that challenge last month. The agency’s listing “represents a reasoned exercise” of its discretion based on the facts and the available science in 2008 when it made the determination, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington wrote in a 116-page ruling.
‘Best Available Science’
“The Endangered Species Act decisions are predicated on the best available science,” Chris Tollefson, a spokesman with the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview. “Our understanding of that is constantly evolving.”
Tollefson said the Fish and Wildlife Service can review changes “in what we understand to be the best available science concerning a given species.”
President Barack Obama created an interagency working group led by the Interior Department to oversee oil and natural-gas exploration in Alaska. The group will coordinate permit decisions and environmental reviews for onshore and offshore projects, including Royal Dutch Shell Plc’s plan to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
“As we go into this period, this critical window where permits are going to be decided, you’ll do it without the benefit” of Monnett’s work, Ruch said.