Flying about 460 meters above the seas off Alaska in 2004 on the hunt for bowhead whales, federal wildlife biologist Charles Monnett and colleagues spotted four white blobs floating in the water. The white blobs were polar bears, which drowned in the open ocean following a powerful Arctic storm. Two years later, Monnett and his colleague Jeffrey Gleason published a note about the drowned polar bears in the peer-reviewed journal Polar Biology, speculating that the ongoing retreat of sea ice in the Arctic forced these polar bears to swim longer distances and potentially left them too exhausted to survive the storm.

Now, five years later, those observations—as well as Monnett's oversight of a polar bear research program to track the fate of the Arctic ursines—have become the subject of an ongoing investigation, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a group defending Monnett. For its part, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) has denied that the investigation has anything to do with the paper but rather concerns "allegations pertaining to scientific misconduct," and suspended Monnett on July 18.

What those allegations may be remains unclear. What is clear from a transcript of the investigation's interview of Monnett in February—released by his defenders PEER and available here—is that investigators focused on potential miscalculations in the Polar Biology paper, specifically subjects such as how Monnett knew that drowned polar bears had not been observed in previous years and how he extrapolated from the observed dead to potential deaths. Monnett explained it as "fifth grade math" to estimate the number of dead polar bears given the size of the area surveyed. He charged any miscalculation was "not scientific misconduct anyway. If anything, it's sloppy."

Monnett will face a second round of questioning August 9, specifically focusing on how he has overseen $50 million in polar bear research contracts. These ongoing scientific studies have collared bears to track them and determine how the animals are adapting to the changes brought on by a rapidly warming Arctic, including retreating sea ice.

As for why the investigation is proceeding, PEER's Jeff Ruch for one believes it has to do with pending oil and gas leases in the Arctic overseen by BOEMRE. "You have to wonder: this is the guy in charge of all the science in the Arctic and he is being suspended just now as an arm of the Interior Department is getting ready to make its decision on offshore drilling in the Arctic seas," Ruch told The Guardian.

That's an analysis Monnett's wife, scientist Lisa Rotterman shares. "I don't believe the timing is coincidental," she told the Associated Press. Read the whole transcript here and judge for yourself.

What remains beyond dispute is that polar bears' weight has been dropping for the past several decades as have their absolute numbers—at least in northeastern Canada's Hudson Bay. What also may be indisputable is what Monnett told investigators back in February: "we work for an agency that is, especially then, extremely hostile to the concept of climate change, that's hostile to the idea that there's any effects of anything we do on anything… They wouldn't let me do the right kind of analysis that had some potential to demonstrate negative effects from what we manage as an agency." When pressed later by the investigators he added of what has now become BOEMRE: "They don't want any impediment to, um, you know, what they view as their mission, which is to, uh, you know, drill wells up there."

Image: Jessica Robertson / USGS