The academic literature contains numerous examples of the failures of both top-down and bottom-up common pool resource management frameworks. Many authors agree that management regimes instead need to utilize a multi-level governance approach to meet diverse objectives in management. However, many currently operating systems do not have that history. This paper explores the conversion of ancestral top-down regimes to complex systems involving multiple scales, levels and objectives through the management of the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in its five range countries. The less successful polar bear management systems continue to struggle with the challenges of developing institutions with the capacity to learn and change, addressing multiple objectives while recognizing the conservation backbone to management, and matching the institutional scale with biophysical, economic and social scales. The comparatively successful institutions incorporate these features, but reveal on-going problems with vertical links that are partially dealt with through the creation of links to other groups.