Systematic Conservation Planning

Biocultural perspectives on conservation planning

Dr. Eleanor Sterling is the Director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  She recently spoke in the Howard Woodin Colloquium of the Program in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College.  Her presentation on how biocultural perspectives influence conservation strategies is well worth watching, and can be viewed in its entirety here.

The main thrust of her argument, as I see it, is that the practice of conservation is not strictly a natural science.  Because conservation is imagined and implemented (or not) by people embedded within distinct cultures with distinct histories, the design of conservation strategies requires consideration of those cultures and histories.  In short, the people who will ultimately responsible for implementing the strategies must be equitably included in the design process.  The alternative is to risk failure.

Her example of how failure to consider the importance of an animal’s color to ethical perceptions of whether or not they are acceptable as food is an instant classic.  A strategy to provide rabbits  to villagers in Madagascar as an alternative to endangered lemurs as a food source failed … because the rabbits provided were black, and the villagers have a cultural proscription against eating black animals.

She further develops her argument through the lens of systems analysis, which shows that conservation problems (such as an endangered species) cannot be understood or solved by focusing on only one level, such as a local village.  Local actions are influenced by conditions and policies at higher levels and larger spatial extents, such as regions, nations, and international communities.

I like this message for two reasons.  First, it reminds us that conservation anywhere involves the responsibility of people everywhere.  We are all a part of a global system of social, cultural, and ecological interactions, and it is simply not defensible to claim that we are not connected to the root causes of every conservation challenge.  Second, it reminds me of reason I am uncomfortable with the tendency of many of my colleagues to view “conservation biology” as synonymous with “conservation.”  If conservation strategies get reduced to being just the application of biology, it’s easy to ignore the role of culture and society in making conservation work.  And as Eleanor Sterling so eloquently points out, we ignore this at our peril.

What I still find challenging in thinking about biocultural perspectives is not how they can help implement successful strategies.  It’s what happens when cultural perceptions of what matters irreconcilably clash.  At some level, all human-defined goals are reflections of human-defined values, and not all values can be promoted simultaneously.  If a natural resource extraction industry values profit over the persistence of a species, how can a path forward be shaped that does not fundamentally require that one or the other biocultural perspective be devalued?

And when unconstrained economic growth is increasingly held as the preeminent global paradigm, how can conservation succeed?

Social identity and the future of Montana

Today’s New York Times reports on an effort currently underway by a non-profit organization to create a 3-million acre reserve in the grasslands of Montana.  The American Prairie Reserve is buying ranches that are for sale and slowly stitching together a landscape in which bison can roam freely and in which ecological conditions akin to those present 200 years ago can flourish.

This project is admirable in its scope and goals.  Bison, as the largest native herbivore in North America since the time of the post-Pleistocene mass extinction, were powerful ecological engineers, and their loss — brought about primarily by overhunting — has had widespread consequences on the biological integrity of this continent’s prairies.  Coupled with subsequent land-use changes that have largely involved ranching, with its associated fencing and cattle, the loss of bison herds is one of the biggest wildlife transformations anywhere in North America.

Which makes the work of the American Prairie Reserve one of the biggest wildlife conservation stories today.

What I find interesting about this story, however, is not what they are trying to achieve.  Rather it is the social environment within which they are trying to achieve it.  This story does not involve government intervention, eminent domain, or an Eastern Establishment driving up property values.  Fair-market value is paid to willing sellers who are approached after they put their ranches up for sale.

Yet as reported by the New York Times, this conservation effort faces opposition from some ranchers in the area because … it does not conform to their vision of how the land ought to be used: cattle ranching.

This reminds me of similar conflicts that emerged in New England in the 1990s over logging and timber lands.  All such stories about the “legitimate” uses for large landscapes seems to involve similar questions.

Are there limits to private property rights that would allow neighbors to say to someone, “You cannot sell your land to this other person because they aren’t going to use it the way I think they should”?  It is easy to understand why one would not want to allow a new neighbor to build something that was destructive or dangerous on their land, but should rancher be able to say that a conservation group should not own land because they are practicing conservation?  Or a snowmobiler be able to say that a new landowner cannot post their land against snowmobiling?

On what basis can those who believe in a particular cultural narrative of place claim that their narrative is the most important?  It’s understandable that ranchers who want to continue ranching should expect to be able to continue ranching on their land.  But what gives ranching primacy over other cultural narratives, such as those held by Native Americans who lived there before the ranchers?

And what constitutes the “place” being considered?  An individual ranch?  A single valley? A 20-million acre prairie?  As spatial scale increases, so too does the opportunity for and challenges of diverse cultural narratives to come together —  woven together either collaboratively or in conflict.

This really isn’t just a story about Montana or ranching or bison.  It’s a story about landscape-scale conservation planning everywhere and the role of social identity in shaping the cultural narrative that is used to describe a place.  How we learn — or don’t learn — to unpackage those issues will determine how successful conservation will be in the 21st century and beyond.

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