Polar Bear Study by USGS Scientists Shelved for Three Months

Published Oct 19, 2020

What happened: The Director of the US Geological Survey (USGS) delayed the release of a USGS study on polar bear dens for three months. The study, which had already undergone extensive peer review and the agency’s clearance process, was released only when the media highlighted this unnecessary and unusual delay.

Why it matters: The federal government’s science-based organizations, like USGS, publish some of the world’s most important scientific research. The USGS Director’s decision to delay a study for three months unnecessarily delayed the release of an important piece of research that will likely have major implications on polar bear populations living near proposed oil and gas developments in Alaska.

The Director of US Geological Survey (USGS), James Reilly, unnecessarily delayed the release of a scientific publication for three months despite the study being peer reviewed and clearing the agency’s rigorous internal processes to check for scientific validity. The study investigated the survival rates of polar bears in Alaska’s Southern Beaufort Sea, specifically examining the number of maternal dens likely to be present in areas where industrial activities occur. One former USGS official who was familiar with the situation called the delayed release “unprecedented” and troubling.

On September 30, the Washington Post obtained two internal staff memos that detailed the concerns that Reilly had about the new study, which, in an unusual manner, showed that Reilly had a major distrust of the scientific methodologies employed by the researchers. For instance, USGS staff stated that “the Director continues to ask about the validity of the scientific techniques,” such as there being “too many assumptions” and “models on top of models.” After the release of the Washington Post article, Reilly sent an internal email to his staff the next day justifying his actions as him wanting to be “satisfied” with the underlying science before making the study public. The study was later released on the USGS website on October 1.

The Southern Beaufort Sea is a well-known place for mother polar bears to come ashore to den and give birth; however, oil and gas operations can represent a real danger to the polar bears. According to a USGS scientist, polar bear cubs are less likely to escape a motorized vehicle and the cubs have a decreased ability to survive exposure to outside winter temperatures if oil and gas’ seismic operations crush their den. One of the findings of the USGS study is that due to accelerated loss of sea ice driven by climate change, female polar bears are more likely to come ashore to den. This may make industrial activities in the area especially threatening to polar bear populations since several operations are slated to occur along the shoreline.

The study has major implications for two potential oil and gas development projects in Alaska. First, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is required by law to cite the USGS study when assessing the ecological impacts of a three-billion-dollar drilling project on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. Since polar bears are considered a threatened species that are protected under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, the drilling project can only go through if the US Fish and Wildlife Service determines that industrial activities will have a negligible impact on the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population. Second, the study could affect the ability to lease drilling rights on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge since the study found that 34 percent of the western US Arctic’s maternal dens lie on the refuge’s coastal plain, the area that the Department of Interior approved for leasing in August.

In one of the memos obtained by the Washington Post, from August 20, Reilly had demanded that the scientists change their methods and document the location of every single polar bear denning site. Polar bear mothers and cubs stay in underground dens across a wide swathe of land in the Southern Beaufort Sea, making their denning sites difficult to find. The USGS researchers were using what is considered the best scientific methods to estimate the number of polar bear dens, with thermal sensing and satellite data. Agency researchers replied back to Reilly implying that his request was unreasonable since “it is not practical to expect to be able to map the locations of all dens in the population, ‘mark’ or count all individuals in the population.”

Incredibly, in this same memo, the agency researchers had to explain to Reilly how scientific models work and why confidence intervals are important. When Reilly said that there were too many “assumptions” and “too much uncertainty” in the paper, the researchers replied “both of the studies are based on real data… not assumptions” and that “quantifying uncertainty is a good thing and we would be criticized by peer reviewers if we had not calculated those [confidence intervals].”

In the second memo, from September 11, Reilly questioned whether a co-author had a potential conflict of interest because the author, a respected polar bear scientist who formerly worked at USGS for 30 years, had joined an NGO that advocated for protections related to polar bears. The USGS scientists replied back stating that the co-author’s data collection process was vital to the research conducted in the study. Additionally, the USGS scientists stated that they had followed the agency’s conflict of interest policies and that the co-author had not participated in any of the new modeling and analyses that were conducted.

Unbelievably, this is the third attack on science (see these two previous attacks) that has featured attacks on federal scientists attempting to study and provide science-based recommendations on Alaskan polar bear populations that face threats from oil and gas operations. This is not the way that science is supposed to work at the federal government – scientists are employed to examine the hard questions and publish research so that decisionmakers, the public, and other scientists have access to this robust and high-quality information. When the Director of an agency decides to purposefully delay the publication of an important peer-reviewed paper for questionable reasons, it also delays public access to this incredible and needed scientific knowledge from some of the top experts in the field.