"Tribes have local,
place-based cultures and their cultural survival depends on the
member of the Nez Perce, Brian J. Pinkham, dipnets for Chinook
salmon in Idaho in 2001. For the past several years, the tribe's
climate change coordinator, Stefanie Krantz, has been conducting
a vulnerability assessment and working on a climate adaptation
plan. BILL SCHAEFER / GETTY IMAGES
TEMPERATURES IN IDAHO'S COLUMBIA, SNAKE, and Salmon rivers
were so warm in 2015 that they cooked millions of salmon and steelhead
to death. As climate change leads to consistently warmer temperatures
and lower river flows, researchers expect that fish kills like this
will become much more common. Tribal members living on the Nez Perce
Reservation are preparing for this new normal.
"The biggest and most poignant impact for Nez Perce tribal members
has been the loss of fishing and fish," says Stefanie Krantz, the
climate change coordinator for the tribe. "For tribal peoples, they
are absolutely essential for survival."
After the 2015 fish kills, the tribe decided to hire Krantz to
work full-time to assess the many ways that a warming planet threatens
their way of life. The tribe has about 3,500 enrolled members, and
its reservation spans 750,000 acres. For the last three years, Krantz
has been conducting a vulnerability assessment and working on a
new climate adaptation plan. The tribal government is expected to
formally adopt Krantz's plan after it has been finalized.
As other North American tribes have begun to experience the effects
of climate change over the past decade, they too have started to
adopt climate resilience and adaptation plans. According to a database
maintained by the University of Oregon, at least 50 tribes across
the U.S. have assessed climate risks and developed plans to tackle
them. With more than 570 federally recognized tribes controlling
50 million combined acres, these adaptation plans could prove a
crucial element in building resilient communities that can thrive
despite weather-related catastrophes and changes to the natural
the mountains of the Flathead Nation, Mike Durglo Jr. greets
a 2000-year-old whitebark pine tree that he named Illawia,
which means great-great-grandparent in his native language.
Durglo leads climate change planning efforts for the Confederated
Salish & Kootenai Tribes, which created a climate change
strategic plan in 2013. CHIP SOMODEVILLA / GETTY IMAGES
"Tribes, because they are a separate sovereign, have a unique capacity
to give us a lot of guidance," says Elizabeth
Kronk Warner, dean of the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the
University of Utah. Federally-recognized tribes are sovereign governments
and therefore can set climate policies independently of federal
or state governments. The laws passed and programs adopted by tribes
have the potential to significantly improve their resilience in
the face of climate risks.
Warner has been researching the effects of climate change on indigenous
peoples for about a decade and has noticed a "big, big increase"
in the number of climate adaptation plans developed over the past
five years in particular. "Increasingly, we're seeing the impacts
of climate change in Indian country," she says. "As more tribes
get into the field and are able to look at what other tribes have
done, it increases the likelihood of proliferation."
The process often begins with a community assessment to estimate
the natural and cultural resources at risk from climate hazards.
Following the assessment, consultants or in-house tribal staff can
develop a specific plan to protect these resources. Tribes have
conducted studies to understand how climate hazardssuch as
erosion from sea level rise and more frequent wildfiresmight
affect them, physically
moved to higher ground to avoid being inundated
by floods, and begun testing
shellfish to ensure they are not poisonous due to phytoplankton
growth caused by warmer temperatures.
The assessments vary widely from tribe to tribe, depending largely
on geography and local environmental factors. Tribes in Western
states, for instance, are particularly vulnerable to the impact
of rising temperatures and its effect on water availability. Coastal
reservations, such as the Swinomish on Washington state's Fidalgo
Island, are more concerned with adapting to rising seas.
Island, in Washington state, is home to the Swinomish Indian
Tribal Community, which has been researching and preparing
for climate change impacts for more than a dozen years. WALTER
SIEGMUND / CC BY 2.5
Krantz, the climate change coordinator for the Nez Perce tribe,
says that tribal members in particular are vulnerable to climate
change because of their close ties to the land. Nez Perce tribal
members, for example, pick berries, roots, and medicinal plants.
As a result, they have a uniquely deep knowledge of the timing of
ecological processes, such as the flowering of plants and migratory
patterns of birds, she says.
"But those things are all changing," says Krantz, and seasonal
shifts are causing plants to move north and upslope. "Tribes have
local, place-based cultures and their cultural survival depends
on the land and the plants and animals."
Indigenous ecological knowledge is a key component of many adaptation
plans, and conversations with tribal elders and other community
members often inform the assessments. After Yurok elders advised
their tribe to "follow
the water" in the wake of a massive fish kill on California's
Klamath River in 2002, the Yurok Tribe focused its attention and
resources on aquatic habitats, drinking water, and the different
species of fish that they rely on for sustenance.
The tribe has since developed
a fish monitoring program that can detect diseases early. Since
some diseases are worsened by higher temperatures and low water
flows, the tribe relays information about the disease to the Bureau
of Reclamation, a federal agency that manages dams on the Klamath
River. The agency, which makes decisions about the amount of water
released from behind the dam, may ultimately help decrease the spread
of fish diseases. The tribe also lights controlled
fires to reduce water use by thirsty plants on river banks and
has been fighting
to remove four dams from the Klamath by 2020.
painted on an abandoned structure near Window Rock, Arizona,
in the Navajo Nation, which released a climate change adaptation
plan in 2018. ROBERT ALEXANDER / GETTY IMAGES
The University of Utah's Warner, who is a citizen of the Sault
Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, also pointed out that tribal
adaptation plans differ from state and local governments' plans
because they often examine the effect of climate risks on the community
as a whole. "Usually [state plans] focus on the impact to the individual,"
For instance, the Jamestown
S'klallam tribe's 2013 climate adaptation plan discusses the
loss of salmon as both a nutrient-rich and culturally important
species, unlike state plans which tend to focus on their economic
benefits. Salmon not only provides a cultural connection with other
tribes in the Pacific Northwestit also provides a source of
good fatty acids and protein that can counter diabetes and heart
disease. In order to combat the spread
of invasive species that threaten salmon habitat in the Dungeness
River, the tribe has been mapping the presence of weeds and tracking
the effectiveness of herbicides.
Tribes are innovators in this area, and local and federal governments
can learn from their community-based approaches and use of traditional
ecological knowledge, Warner says. Including community members early
in the planning and implementation process, for instance, can increase
buy-in and reduce costs through volunteer networks.
"Typically, we have a tendency to think of tribes as learning from
the federal government, but this is definitely a situation where
other sovereigns can learn from tribes," she says.