On Thursday, administration officials said the memos were written to ensure that U.S. representatives wouldn’t stray outside the agenda of meetings, which they said would be a violation of diplomatic protocol.
The restrictions are "consistent with staying with our commitment to the other countries to talk about only what’s on the agenda," H. Dale Hall, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a phone news briefing.
The memos came just months after the administration, under pressure from a suit brought by conservationists, announced that it would consider protecting the bears under the Endangered Species Act.
Although 20,000 to 25,000 of the big white bears remain, they are struggling as the ice sheets they use to hunt prey diminish in size and seasonal availability, scientists say.
Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group, provided the memos to the P-I. He said they show that the administration is desperately trying to avoid being put on the spot about the big bears.
"The polar bear has created a 24/7 forum for the U.S. government to be grilled about what its position is on global warming, and it’s really put the Bush administration in a tight, tight corner," said Suckling, whose group sued over the animals. "It’s crazy to say, ‘The polar bear is endangered but we’re not going to do anything about global warming.’
"They realize that message is so counterintuitive it cannot be delivered by anyone but the most seasoned hack available."
The memos concern trips to be made by Janet Hohn, who is scheduled to accompany a delegation to Norway led by Julia Gourley of the State Department at a meeting on conserving Arctic animals and plants; and Craig Perham, a biologist attending a meeting in Russia about how to minimize dangerous interactions between humans and polar bears.
Tina Kreisher, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, parent of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the policy did not prohibit Hohn from talking about climate change "over a beer" but indicated that climate was "not the subject of the agenda."
The other employee, Perham, specializes in polar bears. He was invited by the World Wildlife Fund to help advise villagers along the Siberian coast on avoiding encounters with the bears, according to Margaret Williams, director of the WWF’s Bering Sea Program.
In recent years the bears have been seen in unusual locations, such as near native villages. Some scientists speculate this is related to the changes in their natural hunting patterns because of the ice melting.
In 2006, after a marauding bear killed a 15-year-old girl, Siberian groups reached out to Russian scientists and the World Wildlife Fund for help, Williams said.
She asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to take Perham along to coastal villages less than 250 miles from Alaska to offer his expertise.
A memo on Feb. 26 said Perham "understands the administration’s position on climate change, polar bears and sea ice and will not be speaking on or responding to those issues."
Hall, the Fish and Wildlife Service director, said in an interview Thursday that "these memoranda could have been better worded" but that requiring strict adherence to a set agenda had "been a longstanding practice."
Asked for the formal agenda of the Russia meetings, Williams of the World Wildlife Fund said no such document had been negotiated.
"There was," she said "an invitation letter from us to the Fish and Wildlife Service. It always talked about human-bear interactions."
Top-down control of government scientists’ discussions of climate change became controversial last year, after appointees at NASA kept journalists from interviewing climate scientists and discouraged news releases on global warming.
Other instances in which the administration has recently restricted scientists from discussing climate change include:
In June, a high-ranking official in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration admitted in a letter to Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, that the agency "inappropriately" denied a journalist’s request to interview James Hansen, an outspoken scientist who heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
In September, news accounts revealed that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had suppressed an internal agency e-mail intended to summarize scientists’ consensus on evidence of a link between hurricanes and climate change.
In December, two scientists from NOAA said they were forbidden to use the term "climate change" or to mention Kyoto, the Japanese city where the current international treaty on global warming was negotiated.
P-I reporters Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler contributed to this report, which includes information from The New York Times.