Applied Working Group Workshop: Natural Resource Management

Our third workshop explored how a cultural evolution lens may guide beneficial transformational change in the institutional cultures of natural resource management and conservation.

Our third workshop explored how a cultural evolution lens may guide beneficial transformational change in the institutional cultures of natural resource management and conservation.

Rachel L. Kendal and Lorna Winship


Our third in-person workshop, organised by the Natural Resource Management (NRM) Applied Working Group (AWG) was held on 11-13th September in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA. The working group encompasses experts in cultural evolution, ecological science, and natural resource management from Government agencies, Universities, and NGOs around the world, though the focus is largely North American, for now. The group is investigating how a cultural evolutionary framework may be applied to natural resource management processes, and institutions, to inform sustainable approaches to managing land, soil, water, plants, and animals, alongside human quality of life, in a changing future. The in-person workshop built upon stimulating discussions and work already undertaken through online workshops which identified several key case studies where knowledge and theory from the cultural evolution field may prove beneficial.

Richard Berl (who leads the working group along with a core team of collaborators) began proceedings by highlighting that “conservation is culture” and is less about managing wildlife and other species and more about managing people. Accordingly, the group was encouraged to think about conservation and natural resource management as an evolving cultural value system and how practitioners themselves are embedded in this institutional culture. This (re)framing of natural resource management under a cultural evolutionary lens is key to the three case studies the AWG is pursuing.

Cultures of Governance

(Led by Jonathan Fisk & Kirsten Leong, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA))

Cultures evolve as they are continuously changing. Yet, as emphasized, “conservation social science is a historical science” due to the fact that institutional traditions in NRM embody past cultural values. And we all know how institutional legacies make changing the course of ‘the ship’ difficult and slow! Hence, the challenge here is for institutional cultures to evolve, alongside the changing cultural values of the general population, and changing environmental pressures (see Salerno et al. 2021). A key issue here is how to include indigenous cultures ethically and effectively within the NRM institutional cultures without assimilation, appropriation, exploitation, and misrepresentation. This is not an easy task as Indigenous Peoples’ ‘natural law’ often contrasts strongly with the institutional separation of people and nature in contemporary natural resource management. Adaptation is required to manage our natural resources better and serve the various stakeholders (indigenous or otherwise) who use them better. Here, cultural evolutionary principles may be applied to enable such guided adaptation and organisational change.

In this case study the group members discussed three different examples of inclusion of indigenous peoples’ traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in management or governance decisions. These relate to fisheries in Hawaii, fire management in California, and wolf management in the Great Lakes of North America. Their analysis emphasized that a paradigm shift in NRM institutional thinking (aka cultural evolution) is needed, away from a technocratic ‘trust us the agency’ towards a true democratic co-management of resources with Indigenous (and other local) People, and eventually co-governance where power is equal.

The surface of a body of water, with land in the distance. Beneath the surface of the water are an array of many different aquatic animals.
Composite image showing examples of the remarkable diversity of larval and juvenile fish and invertebrates found living in surface slick nurseries along West Hawai’i. Larval photos: NOAA Fisheries/Jonathan Whitney, Surface slicks photo: NOAA Fisheries/Joey Lecky.

Adapting Adaptive Harvest Management

(Led by Scott Boomer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS); Richard Berl, United States Geological Survey (USGS))

In this case study, the history of the decision-making framework for managing wild bird populations across North America is examined, highlighting the inertia of the prevailing institutional culture, with its focus on the needs of hunters to shoot ‘waterfowl’. Change is required as cultural values are shifting away from hunting and towards other, less extractive, interests in the wild birds and the environment they inhabit. Unfortunately, there is a problem as currently habitat management/conservation is tied to gun sales and institutional models, or cultural values, pertain to the influence of ecology, but not hunter behaviour, on bird numbers. Here, cultural evolutionary principles can be applied to ensure the framework of ‘adaptive harvest management’ becomes more resilient and adaptive to changes in global climate and cultural values regarding wildlife (see Berl et al. 2022). 

It was very exciting to hear at the workshop, that progress has already been made as Scott Boomer has been pleasantly surprised at the reception of the idea by high-level administrators in USFWS who are keen to hear the AWG’s advice regarding intentional institutional transformational change, taking into account cultural shifts in agencies and within hunting and other communities. The AWG’s work has prompted an evaluation of the nationwide regulatory process. We, the grant team, who admittedly are embedded in our own culture where hunting is minimal and the preserve of the elite, are hoping ‘Adaptive Harvest Management’ will be renamed ‘Adaptive Bird Management’ to reflect this cultural change, but we may be expecting too much! Regardless, there is much scope here to highlight how cultural evolution theory (e.g., regarding cumulative cultural evolution, collective cooperation, diffusion of innovations, and transmission biases) may be used to guide the process of transformational change alongside the principles of structured decision making and multi-level learning (Pahl-Wostl, 2009) that the institution is tied to.

A stamp with text reading: U.S. Department of the Interior. Tundra Swans. Void after June 30, 2024. Federal Duck Stamp Office $25. Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp. On the stamp, three white swans are flying over a body of water.
A federal duck stamp is a license required for waterfowl hunters. Additionally, it serves as a permit for entrance into national wildlife refuges that charge an entry fee. The stamp’s sale proceeds primarily fund the conservation of waterfowl habitats. Each year, a new design is chosen through a contest, making the stamp a collector’s item as well. Credit: Joseph Hautman/USFWS

Cultural Values in Wildlife Management

(Led by Lily van Eeden, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University, Australia / Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action, Victoria State Government, Australia)

In this case study, the AWG again aims to highlight that wildlife conservation and management is an evolving practice by considering the history and cultural evolution of conservation. In particular, there has been a relatively recent value shift towards incorporation of the human element into conservation strategies (i.e.) bio-cultural conservation. These value shifts lead to governance changes and inevitably tensions, as conservation agencies historically focus purely on biological (vs. cultural) problems (van Eeden et al. 2020). The workshop attendees felt that using a cultural evolution lens would allow more wide-spread recognition and acknowledgement that past conservation cultural values influence today’s conservation culture. Such is apparently a fairly unique perspective within conservation and governance agencies that engage in NRM, and hence a valuable insight. Moreover, application of cultural evolution theory emphasizes that future change in conservation cultural values may be predicted and also guided.

In particular, the group will focus on the issue of how the various conservation paradigms place differing emphasis on the dichotomy of native versus introduced or invasive species and the concept of which species ‘belong’ and which are ‘pests’, with implications for the valence of human-wildlife interactions. Key here is consideration of indigenous ontologies, or world views, that may differ to the dominant/majority conservation culture regarding species belonging or nativeness. For example, for some Indigenous Peoples great cultural value may be placed on what agency conservationists deem an introduced species that should be managed out of the habitat (e.g., Asian water buffalo feature in the Dreaming stories of Australian Aboriginal peoples and modern horses are attributed nationhood status by North American Lakota peoples). Here, a cultural evolution lens emphasizes the need for a pluralism of world views in governance, resulting in a polycentric governance of natural resources, whereby Indigenous Peoples have agency over their land and resources (see Gavin et al. 2018). These considerations regarding rights and agency of Indigenous Peoples echo the outcomes of our previous AWG workshops in the domain of Hunter-Gatherer Education and the ways in which culture is used as a tool.

Rock art featuring animal and human depictions in white and red hues against a red rock face.
“Two buffalo” panel with the northernmost paintings at Djarrng as it was in 1979 (photograph by George Chaloupka).
The same image as previous, with the figures highlighted in clearer white and two buffalos in the background highlighted in yellow.
Digital tracing (by A.S. Sambo) of the two buffalos (highlighted in yellow; horns of one seen upper left and the second is in profile facing to the right) tracing published in Mayet al. (2021).

What now?

The AWG is working at a commendable pace to achieve real impact outside the ivory towers of academia. As well as academic papers, the group plan to produce slide-decks for a variety of audiences, agency summary briefs, white papers, and environmental justice training materials for agencies. The inclusion of core members working within government agencies, alongside academics, was refreshing to observe and is crucial for the AWG’s achievements moving forward. From the grant team’s perspective, it was eye-opening to learn of the impact that a simple cultural evolution framing could have on transforming conservation management practice, yet likewise to observe the intricacies of the political culture which agency staff must navigate in order to guide NRM cultural change for an equitable and sustainable future.


A group of 10 people in a mountainous landscape on a sunny day, wearing hiking clothes.
Thank you to Richard Berl and Astghik Markosyan for a wonderfully organised and stimulating few days at Colorado State University, even including a hike in Hewlett Gulch with some of the AWG members.

Berl, R. E. W., et al. (2022). Building a systems framework to facilitate adaptive organizational change in state fish and wildlife agencies.” Conservation Science and Practice 4(2): e591.

Gavin MC, McCarter J, Berkes F, Mead ATP, Sterling EJ, Tang R, Turner NJ. Effective Biodiversity Conservation Requires Dynamic, Pluralistic, Partnership-Based Approaches. Sustainability. 2018; 10(6):1846. https://doi.org/10.3390/su10061846

May, S., Taçon, P., Jalandoni, A., Goldhahn, J., Wesley, D., Tsang, R., & Mangiru, K. (2021). The re-emergence of nganaparru (water buffalo) into the culture, landscape and rock art of western Arnhem Land. Antiquity, 95(383), 1298-1314. doi:10.15184/aqy.2021.107

Pahl-Wostl, C. (2009). A conceptual framework for analysing adaptive capacity and multi-level learning processes in resource governance regimes. Global Environmental Change 19(3): 354-365.

Salerno, J, Romulo, C, Galvin, KA, Brooks, J, Mupeta-Muyamwa, P, Glew, L. Adaptation and evolution of institutions and governance in community-based conservation. Conservation Science and Practice. 2021; 3:e355. https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.355

van Eeden, L. M., et al. (2020). “Diverse public perceptions of species’ status and management align with conflicting conservation frameworks.” Biological Conservation 242: 108416.

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