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Between Scylla and Charybdis: Environmental governance and illegibility in the American West


In The Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew must navigate the Strait of Messina between two great hazards: the six-headed monster Scylla on one side, and the whirlpool Charybdis on the other. This conceit here guides a critical engagement with scientific knowledge and state power, grounded in the positionality and practices of government agents charged with the management of controversial species and processes in the American West. Based in ethnographic and archival research on wolf-livestock conflict and public lands grazing in Central Idaho, I relate how agents with the U.S. Forest Service and Idaho Department of Fish and Game navigate conditions not of their own choosing. Sailing the “choppy seas” of complex systems and multiple-use mandates, with the “whirlpool” of cuts to capacity on one side and the “monster” of political controversy and litigation on the other, agents appear to collect less or more ambiguous information on their charges, resulting in a partial “blindness” or illegibility. Although a rational adaptation to unrealistic expectations, this ignorance is not bliss but rather symptom and source of dysfunction, limiting agents’ ability to carry out monitoring, collaboration, and effectively conduct on-the-ground management. Understanding patterns of illegibility requires that we attend both to broader contextual pressures and situated motivations. In so doing, we might account for the seeming disconnect between agencies’ stated aims and practices, complicate traditional assumptions of evidence-based scientific management and analyses of bureaucratic rationality and state power, and make sense of the apparent dysfunction around environmental governance in the American West today.

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