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Tribes plan for potential impact of climate change

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MISSION VALLEY — The secret is out: climate change is real, and it’s coming to the Flathead Indian Reservation. And the tribes are taking action. 

According to a press release, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have begun the process of hiring an individual or organization tasked with, “assisting the tribes with preparation, editing, writing and design of a climate change strategic plan.” 

The project’s purpose is to identify climate change’s potential local impacts, risks and vulnerabilities, develop climate change adaptation strategies and an implementation plan. 

According to CSKT Division of Environmental Protection Manager Mike Durglo Jr., the plan is intended to “help us plan for the future and the impacts that climate change will have on pretty much the entire reservation, people and resources. So, basically, the (CSKT Council) passed a resolution I brought in saying they acknowledge the climate is changing and we are going to prepare this plan to help us in the future.”

The Tribal Council passed the resolution Nov. 29 with unanimous support, but Durglo said he’d been working on it for more than four months before the vote. Originally, Durglo asked every CSKT department to designate someone to help him on the project. He said that didn’t work, so he went to the Tribal Council, asking they mandate all departments be involved because, “ultimately, (climate change) impacts every department.”

The resolution states that the Natural Resources Department had received funding from the Roundtable on the Crown of the Continent and the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative for the project. 

“There is overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change driven in part by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the effects of which may significantly affect environment, natural resources, and infrastructure on which the tribes have traditionally relied on,” the resolution read. “The potential impacts of climate change may include loss of habitat, reduced viability of fish and wildlife species, damage to forest resources, reduced air and water quality and quantity, damage to infrastructure and facilities, and associated risks to human health and welfare.”

In addition, the resolution states that inaction might yield negative social, environmental, cultural and economic consequences in the future. 

Durglo said residents need not look further than the view of the Mission Mountains from U.S. Highway 93 for proof that the local climate is changing. 

“If you drive down Highway 93 and look up to the mountains and see all the dead trees out there, part of it is the pine beetles,” he said. “(The winter has not been cold enough to kill them off) and they’re killing off a lot of the trees. That’s why I wanted to involve all departments. It will impact the fisheries, water, forest and people socially and economically. We’ve already seen the economic impact of the drought in the Midwest driving up the prices of our food.”

The plan is tailored to include traditional ecological knowledge “to the maximum extent possible.”

CSKT Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation manager Tom McDonald said tribal cultural knowledge could be useful as the years get warmer and storms grow more intense. 

“The elders would say what the purpose of the plant was, what it provided them, how the plant was used, and if this particular plant would be important for us to continue to have in our landscape or actually increase (abundance) if we expect these types of things to happen in the future,” McDonald said. “Emphasis on a plant and its abundance and persistence if restored to a higher level would be extremely beneficial in a changing environment.

“What the elders are concerned about is medicinal plants. Some high-mountain medicinal plants can only be picked at certain times in the growing season. If they are not picked at the right time, they’re not medicinal — they’re poisonous.”

Durglo said he’d attended a workshop in Wisconsin. He said that for tribes in the area, moose and moose hunting is a major food source, but climate change is contributing to the steady decline in moose populations. 

Ticks are a problem for moose in that part of the United States. The ticks hatch in the spring and attach moose during the warmer months. When winter comes, the ticks freeze to death and the moose brush them off on trees. Mild winters mean the ticks don’t freeze, so the moose are suffer from them year round and rub against trees until their hair falls out. Without a layer of fur to protect them from cold snaps, the moose freeze to death.

“I saw pictures of them,” Durglo said. “It looked like a naked moose.”

Durglo said the problem has been documented in Montana. CSKT natural resource department manager Rich Janssen said the CSKT has been working with the state of Montana and hunters to document and reverse failing moose populations. Janssen said many tribal members who’d obtained a moose tag for last fall’s hunt chose not to fill it, understanding the need to allow moose populations to recover.

While political gridlock and divisions over party lines have stymied attempts to legislate climate change at a larger scale, scientific evidence for global warming is overwhelming.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” and according to NASA, “Most of it is very likely human-induced and proceeding at a rate that is unprecedented in the past 1,300 years ... The evidence for rapid climate change is compelling.”

The global sea level rose nearly 7 inches in the last century. In the last decade, the sea has been rising at a rate nearly double the rate of the last century, meaning the process is speeding up, and speeding up rapidly. 

The Earth has warmed over the past century, with the most significant change coming since the 1970s, as the top 20 warmest years all occurred after 1981. Ten of the warmest years on record occurred in the past 12. 

The top 2,300 feet of the oceans have warmed .302 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969, and since the beginning of the industrial revolution, ocean water acidity has increased 30 percent. 

“This increase is the result of humans emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and hence more being absorbed into the oceans. The amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by the upper layer of the oceans in increasing by about 2 billion tons per year,” according to a NASA press release. 

Arctic sea ice is melting at a staggering rate, and glaciers in the Alps, Himalayas, Andes, Rockies, Alaska and Africa are retreating. 

Data from NASA’s gravity recovery and climate experiment shows Antarctica losing 36 cubic miles of ice per year from 2002-05, while Greenland lost between 36 and 60 cubic miles of ice from 2002-06, and the ice isn’t coming back.

McDonald said the Mission Mountains act as a long-term water storage system, accumulating snow and ice in the winter months and slowly releasing water toward the valley floor as temperatures rise and snow melts. As the years get hotter and dryer, snowfall becomes rain. Rain travels downhill through the path of least resistance and is often absorbed into soil, limiting usable water. 

Worse still, every biosphere on planet Earth is connected — hence the term global warming. 

“You can live in a community where no fossil fuels are being consumed, and you’re not a consumer of any product that’s made with any fossil fuels, yet you’re suffering climate change,” McDonald said. “That’s how ‘global’ it really is.”

So, as far as affecting the environment for the better, there is little the tribes can do on a global scale. However, steps are already being taken to help ease the transition and lessen the impact in the years to come. 

“What can you do? You can learn,” McDonald explained. “How can I allow the local animals more room, more flexibility to adapt? I can provide movement corridors; I can make the reptilian areas better along the streams. I can maintain a good forest canopy over the stream so those temperature spikes don’t affect the temperature as much. Maybe I practice water conservation so there’s more water in the stream, and I use that water more efficiently on that crop I’m growing. Planting trees can turn emissions back into good air. There’s a lot of little things you can do on a sight-specific basis.”

Compounding the problem is Montana’s geographical location. When compared to areas on the Equator, for example, the Flathead Indian Reservation has little biological diversity or resiliency. 

“The farther north you go, the higher the risk of extinction,” McDonald said. “If you start at the North Pole and work your way toward the Equator, you find more resiliency the closer you get, because at the Equator, (the flora and fauna) are already used to warm temperatures.”

For example, polar bears have lost most of their hunting grounds to melting sea ice and increased temperatures. According to the World Wildlife Fund, polar bears are classified as marine mammals, as they spend the majority of their lives on sea ice. They have been on the threatened species list since 2008 as most of their habitat is melting. 

Dr. Andrew E. Derocher, a biologist and polar bear expert at the University of Alberta, recently published a paper in the journal “Conservation Letters” outlining ways humanity  could save the polar bears. One of his ideas was to drop food for the bears via helicopter at a cost of $32,000 per day. Other options included moving the bears to northerly areas with more ice, capturing them and bringing them south to live in zoos, and killing bears unlikely to survive. 

As CNN columnist John D. Sutter put it, “Here’s a seriously depressing question: If a polar bear no longer has ice to stand on and must have his “bear kibble” airlifted to the Arctic by helicopter, is he still a polar bear? Or is he some sort of zoo-like experiment — a sad but perhaps unavoidable consequence of an era of melting ice and warming climates?”

In fact, things are so bad up north that there are now documented cases of polar bears moving southward and mating with brown bears. 

Faced with this and many more indisputable facts, Durglo said the CSKT is already working on several projects aimed at reducing the Flathead Indian Reservation’s carbon footprint. 

“Mission Valley Power has the Energy Stop program to help reduce energy consumption; the tribe, in the past few years, started the transportation program where people can ride the bus to and from work; and some of the restoration projects the tribe has worked on, like the Jocko River Project, are aimed at protecting the bull trout,” Durglo said. “That’s one of the things I wanted to do: get a perspective from each department and find out what we are doing now, what have we done in the past and what can we do in the future.”

Durglo said his brother Jim is working on a similar climate project in the Mission Mountains, projecting warmer temperatures and less snowpack, along with an earlier spring, later summer and greater fire intensity and duration in years to come. 

Still, no one engaged in this uphill battle is ready to give up.

“If you totally give up on your own community and don’t lead by demonstration, how can you expect anyone else to do it?” McDonald said. “That’s the difficulty a lot of folks face when they see such a worldwide problem. How can I do something that makes a difference? It’s all those efforts combined, even if it’s one of those little things.”

Durglo put it another way. 

“There are things that have already happened that we can’t reverse,” he said. “Even if we stop what we’re doing today — to me, it’s kind of like the train already left the station and is on its way. We can do what we can to slow it down, but maybe future generations can turn it around. I think about the future and our children and grandchildren. 

“A lot of this stuff you and I will never see, but we need to do what we can to save what we have and protect what we have.”



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