CSKT launches comprehensive climate-change study



For generations, Salish and Pend d' Orielle people have taught their children about the great Ice Age that helped shape western Montana. Traditional creation stories say Coyote lived then. He prepared the land for the people and left landmarks—the mountains, rivers and lakes—so those born here would remember his deeds.

Traditional indigenous teachings reflect environmental shifts that geologists say occurred thousands of years ago. For instance, the Mission Valley was once home to glaciers some 2,500 feet thick. Missoula would not exist if warming temperatures hadn't caused an icy dam to thaw 10,000 years ago. When the dam released, the contents of the mighty Glacial Lake Missoula rushed out over the surrounding lands. Sediments and rocks from the flood sculpted the landscape for miles around.

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  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Old Sun Glacier, on Mount Merritt, at Glacier National Park. The glacier, like others in the area, is receding.

"The personal perspective is that climate does change," says James Durglo, who oversees the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes's Forestry Department. "Going back to the...tribal coyote stories, there's a discussion about the receding of the glaciers and things like that, so the tribes' presence on the land base speaks to climate change."

To better understand what warming temperatures mean to the future of forestry, water management and wildlife on the Flathead Reservation, the CSKT Forestry Department is launching a groundbreaking pilot project to evaluate the future impacts of a climate in transition, aided by the U.S. Forest Service and Britain's University of Leeds.

"How is that change going to affect...cultural-use plants over a short period of time, and water and animal species?" Durglo asks.

Temperatures are rising. Fire seasons are lengthening on the Flathead Reservation. Summer is arriving earlier and autumn later, with rainfall taking the place of snow. And, as with many other parts of the Rocky Mountains, pine beetles, which thrive in warm temperatures, are tearing through forests on the Flathead Reservation. The decline of the white-bark pine is particularly troubling for CSKT wildlife biologist Janene Lichtenberg. "That's going to affect the wildlife that depends on those trees and the food," she says.

Lichtenberg's worked for the tribes for 10 years. She says among the most alarming trends she's noticed in that time is the drying of wetlands in the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge marks one of the largest pothole areas west of the continental divide and provides vital nesting habitat for waterfowl including mallards, northern shovelers and gadwalls. Montana experienced an extended draught between 1999 and 2006. During those years, the wetlands nearly went dry, she says. "We were doing brood counts, year after year. You're seeing fewer and fewer pairs and fewer and fewer pairs of offspring."

A series of wet springs have since brought the local water table up. But Lichtenberg says she still worries about the long-term effects of a changing climate. "It makes you really wonder what that means for waterfowl, and certainly, the other animals and plants."

The CSKT pilot project was prompted by a 2009 decision from the Secretary of the Interior to establish the federal government's first-ever comprehensive strategy to address climate change on tribal lands.

As part of the project, CSKT will interview non-native reservation inhabitants, and tribal elders, including ranchers and farmers. The project is unique because those independent historical and cultural perspectives will be incorporated into future planning efforts. "It makes an impact on our management, keeping the elders there," says the CSKT Forestry Department's Roian Matt. "We get to share what we know about the forests scientifically. And they get to share what they know culturally, who we are as Indians."

Research social scientist Alan Watson from the Rocky Mountain Research Station is consulting with the tribes on the project. Watson, who's worked to reconcile ideas about wilderness and ecosystems with environmental and political realities across the globe, says scientists and communities are increasingly seeing the value of incorporating social science with planning efforts. But it's still unusual for personal and cultural perspectives to be included in climate change adaptation efforts. "We're breaking new ground," Watson says. "It's more common to do a quantitative survey...kind of thing, and assume you know what the possible answers are."

The project also stands out because the tribes are using specialized interactive software developed for the CSKT at the University of Leeds. The software will enable the tribes to gather and compile a comprehensive report about how interview subjects feel about perceived changes in their physical environments. CSKT intends to publish the report.

"There's a lot of social and cultural and historical meaning to that landscape," Watson says. "We're trying to think, 'Okay, healthy ecosystems, we think we know what we need to do. Well, wait a minute. How does what we think we need to do form a biophysical perspective? How does it fit and interact with these cultural meanings that people have and expectations for how we manage that land?'"

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