How Polar Bears Became a Political Symbol

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Photo: PublicDomainPictures

I saw my first polar bear of the trip before I even boarded my flight from Chicago to Winnipeg. Submerged in water up to its snout, it stared at me from a World Wildlife Fund poster hanging by the men's bathroom in Concourse F.  Beneath the photo were the words “Be the voice for those who have no voice.”

This is the way most Americans today experience polar bears: as a political symbol first and a flesh-and-blood animal second. That's partially because polar bears are natural spokes-animals for the effects of climate change: they're the Arctic's most iconic creature, and (to some people, from a safe distance) cute.

But it's impossible to talk about polar bears' potency as an emblem without mentioning the case of Charles Monnett. Monnett, a biologist for the Department of the Interior and author of a controversial study on polar bears, was cleared of charges of scientific misconduct by federal investigators in September, ending a six-year tussle between the scientist and the agency that employs him.

You may not recognize Monnett's name, but you've probably heard of his work. In 2004, Monnett and several other scientists from the Minerals Management Service were surveying bowhead whales by aircraft off the coast of Alaska when they found four drowned polar bears floating in the water. The team published a short paper on the sightings, and the news went big. The story hit its zenith in 2006, when Al Gore mentioned the study in An Inconvenient Truth as an example of the havoc climate change was wreaking on the Arctic.

But while the media flocked to the story, Monnett's employer was clamping down. Officials at the MMS told him to stop talking to the press while they conferred with the Fish and Wildlife Service, a move that frustrated the biologist. “FYI, I did not know we needed FWS permission to talk about [polar bears],” he wrote in an email to a colleague. “I suppose NOAA will have to approve when we talk about bowheads.”

In 2010, the Department of the Interior opened an investigation of Monnett after an anonymous complainant alleged that the scientist had falsified data in the paper. The next July, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management—the MMS's successor agency—suspended Monnett. The biologist's supporters countered that the agency, who's primary mission was to bring in royalties from oil and gas exploration, was just trying to shut down discussion of climate change.

While an agency spokesperson said Monnett's suspension wasn't related to the scientific misconduct allegations, that didn't stop climate deniers from pouncing. “Thanks in large measure to the work of Monnett and [co-author Jeffrey] Gleason, the polar bear became the official mascot for climate-change alarmism,” wrote New York Post contributor Matt Patterson in an op-ed. “Images of a lone polar bear perched forlornly on a shrinking ice flow served as efficient propaganda for indoctrinating children.” Forbes dubbed Monnett's dead bears 'Ursus Bogus.'

It's worth mentioning at this point that Monnett isn't the only scientist to suggest that shrinking ice could be causing bears to drown. Shortly before his suspension in 2011, a USGS team that had spent several years tracking polar bears with radio collars released a report which found that individuals were swimming huge distances regularly, sometimes covering over 100 miles at a time, through stretches of open water that hadn't existed 20 or 30 years before.

This fall, six years after An Inconvenient Truth, the Department of the Interior's investigation ended with a whisper. On September 28, the DOI released their findings, which outlined several quibbles with Monnett's methods but absolved him of falsifying data. The scientist's only official punishment was a reprimand for forwarding a handful of internal emails to another researcher and a local government offical in Alaska. Monnett has returned to his job, but according to Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is representing the biologist, his “$60 million portfolio of research” has been reassigned to other people. “He has yet to get clearance on any of his research proposals,” wrote Ruch in an email.  “In short, he has gone from one of the most influential Arctic researchers in July 2011 to a state of marginalized limbo.” Meanwhile, American politicians continue to use polar bears and the science surrounding them to fight a kind of ideological war by proxy; the state of Alaska and a coalition of hunters are currently arguing to an appeals court that the bears should be removed from the endangered species list.

Since leaving Chicago, I've seen two more polar bears: one in a tour company's ad in the Winnipeg airport, and another, a metal silhouette, perched on top of a government office across the street from my hotel. Tomorrow, I'll head to Churchill to look for real ones.

—Adam Roy

Outside is in Churchill, Manitoba, with following the annual polar bear migration. You can see Churchill's bears for yourself on Explore's live cams.

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