The Bear in the Thaw: Political Inheritances of Wildlife Conservation

Authors: Liam Kennedy-Slaney*, University of Manitoba
Topics: Animal Geographies, Cultural and Political Ecology, Anthropocene
Keywords: political ecology, wildlife management, conservation, social natures
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 3:55 PM / 5:35 PM
Room: 8228, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service up-listed the polar bear to the status of “threatened species.” While organizations that lobbied for this had sought to compel action on climate change, the only considerable effect of the listing has been the disruption and demonization of the polar bear sport hunting, undermining the commercial and subsistence activities of many Inuit communities. Other technologies of conservation, such as the harvest quota and the conservation reserve, have similarly failed to meaningfully guard polar bears against their primary existential threat: climate change. Why is there such a dislocation between the intentions and effects of conservation programs for this animal?

I answer that projects of polar bear conservation are hampered by their political inheritances of modernist approaches to nature. Technologies such as the quota, the listing, and the reserve all assume that nature can and should be improved through state-led interventions. Further, the logic of conservation biology (a self-described “mission-oriented crisis discipline”) depends on a reductive dichotomy of nature and culture, leading practitioners to assume that their work only targets wildlife and habitats. I situate my paper within the body of literature stemming from Noel Castree’s concept of Social Natures to argue that conservation implicitly targets social relationships of humans and non-humans. Elaborating on this, I will recount the very human history of polar bear conservation in the arctic as an expression of modernist cultural and political values, albeit one that is challenged and ongoing.

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