The Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan
Through climate adaptation planning, the Blackfeet Nation leadership is actively seeking to protect our communities and diverse ecosystems from the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. This plan is the result of the unique holistic Blackfeet Nation planning process that includes all parts of tribal government, while respectfully considering traditional values and a collective community vision for our future. Underlying the plan is the Blackfeet understanding that people and nature are one and that people can only be healthy if we ensure the health of the environment we are part of. The process and production of this climate plan has been a timely effort that is informing the Blackfeet Agricultural Resource Management Plan which is being developed concurrently. Both plans will then inform the Integrated Resource Management Plan which will be carried out over the next two years.
The Blackfeet Nation climate adaptation planning process began in 2016, led by Gerald Wagner of the Blackfeet Environmental Office and facilitated by the Center for Large Landscape Conservation. Through these internal and external planning activities, the Blackfeet Nation is deliberately planning for the increasing impacts of climate change and also hopes to share their process and lessons with others struggling to make sense of the impact the changing climate is having on their lives. We hope this effort and the resulting plan will lead the way for communities looking to integrate climate adaptation planning into human health and natural resource management.
The planning process began with a review of climate change trends and predictions which are summarized in a table of the predicted impacts specific to the northwest Montana region (see Appendix A). The climate impact predictions were presented at a series of three informational and planning meetings with eight different resource management sectors: agriculture, culture, forestry, fish, wildlife, land and range, water, and human health. The planning team facilitated discussions with the managers and other experts to identify sector-specific impacts within the Blackfeet Nation. Participants in each sector were guided through a process of identifying sector-specific vulnerabilities, using the Institute for Tribal and Environmental Professional’s (ITEP) Vulnerability and Risk Matrices and Identifying Priority Planning Areas tool. From the identified impacts, the project team then worked with managers in each sector, often with in-person follow-up meetings, to create goals, strategies, and actions for climate change adaptation.
See Planning Areas and Scope for a more detailed explanation of the prioritiziation process.
In addition to the planning work being carried out by sectors within the Blackfeet Nation, planning participants attended a variety of regional and national conferences addressing climate adaptation. Gerald Wagner (Blackfeet Environmental Office) and Melly Reuling (Center for Large Landscape Conservation) were invited to present on holistic climate adaptation planning on a plenary panel at the National Adaptation Forum in Minneapolis, Minnesota in April 2017. They also presented at the Roundtable on the Crown of the Continent Annual Conference and at other regional Climate Adaptation Planning meetings supported by ITEP. The Blackfeet Environmental Office, in collaboration with the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, received a Climate Impacts and Health grant from the National Indian Health Board to look at health-related impacts of climate change in January of 2017. This allowed attendance at the National Climate and Health Conference in Atlanta, Georgia in March of 2017.
Summary of Impacts and Priorities by Management Sector
This section provides a brief overview of each planning sector (chapter): the sector’s focus, major climate change impacts to the sector, the priority level for adaptation planning, and the major adaptation goals decided through the planning process. (The specific strategies and actions for each sector goal are located in the plan’s chapters.)
While climate change is increasing growing season length, day length and photoperiod will remain constant as temperatures rise. Higher temperatures, earlier snowmelt, decreasing summer precipitation and other climate change drivers will negatively impact irrigated land, grain production, livestock production, and pollinators, and these climate change drivers will also increase the probability for fire. The priority for addressing climate change impacts to agriculture is high, as there is both high risk and high vulnerability.
We have eight goals for adapting the agriculture sector to climate change: to 1) promote healthy ecosystems; 2) create an environment where producers can make money; 3) promote specific types of crops based on human nutrition needs; 4) support cropland production in the Blackfeet Nation; 5) support healthy livestock operations; 6) improve land governance; 7) establish monitoring systems for adapting to changes in the environment; and 8) develop a comprehensive emergency management plan that takes agriculture into consideration to help take advantage of federal programs and money.
Cultural Resources and Traditions
Climate change is shifting the ranges of plant and wildlife species, including species of cultural importance to the tribe. Climate change is expected to impact traditional lifeways, including hunting, gathering, and fishing. It is also expected to impact ceremonial sites and items that are integral to Blackfeet culture and history (artifacts). The priority for addressing climate change impacts to cultural resources and traditions is high, given there is both high risk and high vulnerability.
All members of the Blackfeet Nation are responsible for protecting and preserving Blackfeet tribal culture and cultural properties, under the guidance of the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Office. Specific adaptation goals, strategies, and actions are forthcoming.
Warmer temperatures, earlier snowmelt, and decreased stream flow in the late summer months, among other climate change drivers, are negatively impacting fish habitat. Shifts in timing of peak flows, lower flows, higher stream temperatures, and competition from non-native fish are predicted to reduce cutthroat trout and bull trout abundance. Increased frequency and intensity of wildfires will likely increase stream sediment, peak flows, and channel scouring. The priority for planning to protect fish habitat is high given that there is both high risk and high vulnerability.
We have three overarching goals for adapting to climate change impacts to fish habitat: to 1) assess quality and quantity of fish habitat in lakes and streams; 2) ensure healthy habitat for fish and maintain healthy fish populations; and 3) protect recreational fishing opportunities.
As temperatures warm and snow pack decreases, climate change is increasing the risk of fires and may likely result in more frequent fires and fires of greater severity. We determined that the priority for addressing climate change impacts to fire management is high, given there is high risk and medium vulnerability.
We have two main goals for adapting fire management to climate change: to 1) ensure the health and productivity of natural resources in forest and range systems in the face of changing fire regimes; and 2) address wildland-urban interface issues to protect communities from increasing fire risk.
For planning purposes, the human health chapter focuses on air quality and vector-borne diseases, though climate change impacts to human health are much more extensive and varied. Changing weather patterns are increasing the populations and changing the geographical and seasonal distributions of some species that carry viruses and diseases such as mice (Hantavirus), mosquitoes (West Nile virus), and ticks (Lyme disease). Climate change also poses a threat to air quality, as forest fires are expected to increase in frequency and severity. Airborne allergens like tree, grass, and weed pollen, plus indoor and outdoor molds, are expected to increase. Climate change has disproportionate impacts children, pregnant women, persons with disabilities, older adults, people in more vulnerable occupational groups (like people who work outside and emergency response personnel), people who live or work in buildings without air conditioning and ventilation controls, and persons with preexisting chronic medical conditions have more vulnerability to health impacts from climate change. The priority for planning for human health is high, as both risk and vulnerability are high.
We have six overarching goals for adapting to climate change impacts to air quality and vector-borne diseases. We want to 1) increase air quality monitoring; 2) increase monitoring of vectors and vector-borne diseases; 3) increase community awareness of climate-related health risks and adaptation techniques; 4) explore ways to possibly reduce mosquito populations near homes, schools, and places of work; 5) improve air quality in the Blackfeet Nation; and 6) enhance medical service provision for people with medical conditions related to air quality or vector-borne diseases.
Land and Range
The land and range chapter focuses on protecting native grassland vegetation in a changing climate. Changing precipitation patterns are expected to increase the spread of noxious weeds and will impact plant composition in native rangeland, particularly of fescues. The priority for land and range planning is high, given high risk and medium-high vulnerability.
To meet our broader goal of maintaining healthy grasslands by preserving native vegetation species mix and reducing noxious weed invasion, we created seven action steps. The adaptation actions include reexamining and adjusting, if and when necessary, grazing and stocking rates to account for climate change impacts, as well as regulating hay coming into the Blackfeet Nation (i.e. hay must be certified weed free).
Climate change is expected to decrease both water quality and quantity as temperatures increase, snowpack levels decrease, snowpack melts earlier, precipitation patterns change, and late summer stream flows decrease. The priority for addressing climate change impacts to water quality and quantity are high, as risk and vulnerability are both high.
We have three main adaptation goals in the water sector: to 1) reduce the frequency of higher-intensity floods in order to reduce erosion, property damage, and habitat damage or change; 2) assess floodplains to mitigate future property damage, and 3) ensure that downstream users have access to sufficient water flows and water quality.
The wildlife chapter focuses on planning to maintain wildlife populations and habitat and limit impacts of a changing climate. There are two key pathways for wildlife habitat loss in a changing climate: 1) increases in invasive species, and 2) decreased connectivity. Changes in climate are already affecting wildlife habitat in many ways, including influencing insect outbreaks, changing wildfire frequency, intensity, and behavior, and altering water levels in wetlands, streams, and lakes. We determined that the planning priority is medium-high.
We have ten strategies for reaching our goal of maintaining wildlife populations and habitat in the face of changing climactic conditions. We strive to 1) reduce and mitigate human-wildlife conflict; 2) educate and promote an understanding of connectivity, climate change adaptation, and wildlife; 3) understand and maintain the integrity of core habitat areas in the Blackfeet Nation and better protect them; 4) protect ecological connectivity to endure that fauna can adapt to climate change; 5) reassess and establish hunting and fishing limits to align with populations affected by climate change; 6) cooperate with range services to positively impact range habitat for wildlife; 7) coordinate with forestry to implement wildlife-related best management practices; 8) understand population dynamics of a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians in light of stressors including climate change and human disturbance; 9) create action plans for protecting priority species; and 10) build a healthy partnership with the Oil and Gas Department and Blackfeet Forestry (to offer opportunities to comment on management plans between departments and to develop trust and improve inter-departmental communication).
Implementation of this Plan
This plan is meant to be a “living document,” intended to be regularly revisited and updated to reflect changes in the tribe’s needs and priorities (as illustrated in Figure 1). To be most effective, each sector will monitor and measure progress in implementing adaptive actions and help determine whether actions are enhancing the tribe’s overall climate change preparedness. The completed sector chapters are a significant body of work from which to start building resilience to climate change impacts, and they are a base from which to build future project work, research and funding. This plan will inform the tribe’s larger planning processes, including the holistic management planning, water resources management planning, agriculture resource management planning, and food security planning processes that are currently underway. This plan will continue to be integrated into all other relevant planning processes in the Blackfeet Nation. Likewise, these planning processes can feed back into future climate change plan updates and revisions.
See Next Steps for more information on the future of the Plan.
Diagram modified from Climate Smart Conservation Cycle Framework in Climate-Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice and DPIPWE 2014 after Jones 2005, 2009.