Wildlife Sector in the Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan

Photo by Rikki Ollinger.

The Wildlife chapter of the 2018 Blackfeet Climate Change Adaptation Plan (BCCAP) is one of eight chapters created for the first formal, multi-sector climate change adaptation planning effort in the Blackfeet Nation, following the process described here. This chapter was developed through meetings with managers from the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department, and then revised through face-to-face, telephone, and email correspondence. The first two sections, observed impacts and expected impacts, are sets of working hypotheses about climate change that are based on day-to-day observations and/or interpretations of climate change literature (e.g. the Montana Climate Assessment). These hypotheses were formed for the purposes of assessing climate change vulnerability and then strategizing adaptation goals and actions. This and other sections of the plan will be revisited and updated periodically as action items are implemented and adaptation efforts produce insights for future planning.

This chapter includes a section unique from the other chapters in the climate change plan – a Wildlife Populations and Habitat Assessment. The section is added because the Wildlife Sector includes a lot of species and there is no single measure of vulnerability or risk. It is therefore helpful to assess climate change impacts to a broader habitat category rather than individual species for this first, broad climate change planning initiative.

The goal of the Wildlife and Wildlife Habitat Sector of this plan is to focus planning to maintain wildlife populations and habitat and limit impacts of a changing climate. Wildlife management in the Blackfeet Nation is under the jurisdiction of the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department.  Wildlife habitat management is influenced by that department as well as the Environmental, Forestry, Water Resources, and Land Departments.  Adjacent to the Blackfeet Nation, wildlife and wildlife habitat management is under various jurisdictions of federal, state, and provincial authorities, namely, Glacier National Park, Lewis and Clark National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Bureau of Reclamation and parallel Crown and provincial agencies in Alberta, Canada.  This planning document will mainly focus on the Blackfeet Nation, but acknowledged that wildlife crosses boundaries with the previously mentioned jurisdictions.  To ensure habitat needs for far-ranging species are considered, we will need to coordinate many management efforts with neighboring agencies.

Observed and Potential Impacts

Climate change will affect most wildlife species indirectly through changes in habitat structure, prey availability, ecological disturbance, disease dynamics, and shifts in human activities.1 Two key pathways for wildlife habitat loss in a changing climate are: 1) increases in invasive species and 2) decreased connectivity. Connectivity can be lost at multiple scales, and of particular concern are a) individuals’ ability to move through the landscape to meet their daily needs, b) their ability to complete seasonal migrations, and c) their ability to adjust to potentially shifting habitat. In addition to the climate changing habitat, residential and energy development are the primary threats to connectivity.2

Changes in the climate are already affecting wildlife habitat in many ways, including influencing insect outbreaks and the resulting effects on forests and animals, changing wildfire frequency, intensity, and behavior, and altering water levels in wetlands, streams, and lakes.  Resulting changes in forest composition and availability of specific habitats affect many wildlife species including some listed under the Endangered Species Act.  Potential effects to plant phenology and production of berry-producing plants like huckleberry (Vaccinium spp.), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), and savisberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) could cause food shortages for many species, including bears.  When natural food sources decrease for bears and other animals they often adapt by switching to human-related foods like garbage, livestock, or crops, coming into greater contact with people.

We know that climate change is affecting wildlife and wildlife habitat, but direct and indirect impacts are difficult to predict because of the complexity of interrelations between climate, habitat and animals and varying habitat needs for different species.  We don’t have enough baseline information and are not currently collecting enough data on species makeup and numbers to clearly identify and understand effects of climate change on wildlife or habitat.

Decreased snowpack from climate change will lead to losses in snow-dependent species such as snowshoe hare, wolverine, Canadian lynx, and ptarmigan habitat. Changes in the timing of the seasons will lead to behavioral and range changes of grizzly bear, wolverine, and other species, possibly leading to increased conflict with humans. For example, grizzly bears may emerge from hibernation earlier, den later, and search for unnatural, human-related food sources to make up for changing availability of their normal food.  Increases in the number and intensity of wildfires is expected, with fires potentially leading to fragmentation of habitat and stresses to the environment by completely changing the composition of forests. Increased drought is expected.  Vegetation along riparian areas will change.  Lakes and streams will retain less water, water temperatures will rise, and fish populations will be affected.  Each change of habitat or species numbers and composition, whether positive or negative, will cause further impacts on other species through the web of predator/prey relationships or interspecific competition for habitat.

Climate change might impact the ranges and food ability for species like grizzly bears, which has the potential to lead to increase human-wildlife conflict.
Wildlife Populations and Habitat Assessment

The location of concern is Blackfeet Nation-wide.  The types of habitat impacted range from high elevation mountain ecotypes to aspen woodland, conifer forest to prairie pothole and grassland, agricultural land to low elevation riparian creek and river bottoms.  Each type of habitat holds its own combination of wildlife species and has its own risk of impacts from climate change.  The probability of impact is medium with variations between high and low depending on individual type of habitat or vegetation and animal species.

For example, some habitats will be more prone to fires. There is a high probability of impact on wildlife and wildlife habitat from fires due to climate change.  As average temperatures increase and annual rainfall decreases, fire intensity increases and fire behavior changes.  Insects that were normally controlled by prolonged low temperatures during the winter are increasing now (i.e. the Mountain Pine Beetle) and have a devastating effect on pine, spruce, and fir trees, often killing them and creating more dry fuel and increasing risk of fire.

More fires, larger fires, and hotter fires create more drastic changes in habitat than normal.  Larger expanses of uniform burned areas that normally have mosaics of islands of unburned forest or lower intensity burns offer less suitable habitat for most wildlife species.  Less available suitable habitat results in higher stress/lower populations or replacement of natural food sources for unnatural ones and increased likelihood of conflict with humans.

The local economy may be impacted through decreased tourism.  Wild land fires with the smoky air obscuring vistas and irritating nostrils and lungs are not a draw for tourists.  Hundreds of acres of blackened stumps and charred ground is not what people want to experience for their vacation.  More frequent and severe fires will have an impact on the tourism industry that so many businesses and people count on in this area.  Reduced populations of wildlife would also have an impact on tourism.  Changes in wildlife populations and habitat will affect hunter success and participation and thereby affect tribal members economically as well as their traditional practices.  How much of an impact these changes might have is difficult to predict.

Some insects like ticks respond favorably to increases in annual temperature.  Ticks can be vectors of wildlife disease as well as cause general poor condition in wildlife leaving them more susceptible to health problems.

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An eagle flying in Blackfeet Country. Photo by Rikki Ollinger.
Wildlife Adaptation Strategies: Goals and Actions

Responsible Party
Ultimately the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council as the governing body of the Blackfeet Nation is responsible for managing wildlife and habitat on much of the land within the boundaries of the Blackfeet Reservation.  Within the Tribal government the Blackfeet Fish & Wildlife Dept. is responsible for wildlife management.  Wildlife habitat must be considered in plans and actions of the Forestry, Oil and Gas, Environmental, Solid Waste, Water Resources, and Land Departments. The Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for managing much of the wildlife habitat on trust land. Outside of the boundaries of the Blackfeet Nation, that management responsibility belongs to the National Park Service, the U. S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Bureau of Reclamation, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and various provincial and Crown agencies in Canada.

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The Blackfeet Nation Fish and Wildlife Department is responsible for managing wildlife and habitat in the Blackfeet Nation. Photo by Grace Stonecipher.

Purpose (Goals)
1) Maintain wildlife populations and habitat and limit disturbance in the face of changing climatic conditions

The priority is medium-high.

Preparedness Goals: Strategies and Actions

Goal 1: Maintain wildlife populations and habitat and limit disturbance in the face of changing climatic conditions.

Note: Rather than focus on one or a few umbrella species hoping that they will indicate if a problem related to climate change is occurring, our goal is to monitor many species to try to detect changes that might not be obvious in a few representatives.  We do not believe we can always predict which species might react in a positive or negative way to climate change considering the complex interrelationships between animals and habitats.  Perhaps we can identify patterns or species that will act as indicators of problems so we can adapt more efficient strategies in the future.

a) Reduce and mitigate human-wildlife conflict

Actions: All currently being done by Blackfeet Fish & Wildlife Dept.
1) Promote Bear-aware camping practices, provide reduced cost bear spray, and promote bear-wise hunter/hiker practices
2) Educate neighborhood residents on reducing attractants (garbage, bird feeders, pet food, barbecues, grain, etc.)
3) Cost share for bear-proof electric fence around sheep pasture, pig pens, bee yards, chicken coops, calving areas
4) Educate Ranchers to reduce cattle depredation
5)Maintain carcass redistribution program.

b) Educate and promote and understanding of connectivity, climate change, and wildlife

1) Engage with school districts and teachers to influence curriculum/school events to educate and promote understanding of connectivity, climate change, and wildlife understanding.
2) Develop new (or flesh out existing) community events with education components to educate and promote understanding of connectivity, climate change, wildlife understanding.

c) Understand and maintain the integrity of core habitat areas in the Blackfeet Nation in the face of climate change to better protect them

1) Devise monitoring programs to increase understanding of shifting habitat distributions and animal ranges (trapping genetics, harvest numbers, etc.)
2) Maintain prairie habitat by excluding fire and reducing non-native species
3) Protect quaking aspen habitat  and investigate the appropriateness of allowing wildfire, using prescribed fire in older stands, protecting aspen from grazing, and reducing conifer encroachment, and other measures
4) Develop detailed mapping of habitats across the reservation
5) Integrate climate projections into Fish and Wildlife species planning
6) Continue to develop relationships with agencies, NGOs, and academics to share resources, fund work, and protect core habitat

d) Protect ecological connectivity to ensure that fauna can adapt to climate change

1) Continue to develop relationships with agencies, NGOs, and academics to share resources, fund work, and protect ecological connectivity
2) Identify and map key corridors and connectivity areas on and across the Blackfeet Nation
3) Promote wildlife-friendly fencing where possible
4) Research and pursue wildlife roads mitigation (such as underpasses and overpasses
5) Protect or restore prairie potholes
6) Protect stands of mature forest
7) Maintain healthy American beaver populations to provide riparian habitat structure

e) Reassess and establish hunting and fishing limits to align with populations affected by climate change

f) Cooperate with range services to positively impact range habitat for wildlife

g) Coordinate with Forestry to implement wildlife-related best management practices

1) Manage fire to promote wildlife habitat
2) Alter slash pile management for facilitating ungulate movement
3) Time forestry operations to align with wildlife management goals
4) Sustain multi-story, sub-alpine forest for local lynx populations

h) Understand population dynamics of a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians in light of stressors including climate change and human disturbance

1) Identify target species and conduct surveys to identify range and relative population abundance and to map and monitor habitat
2) Liaise with government and non-governmental partners such as The Nature Conservancy, who have done previous work in this area

i) Create action plans for protecting priority species, including:

  • Mammals: grizzly, bison, swift fox, wolves, otter, beaver, lynx, elk, bighorn sheep. Mountain goats, wolverine, antelope, moose
  • Birds: long billed curlew, bald eagle, golden eagle, common loon, sharptailed grouse, owls, black-billed magpie, western meadow lark, sandhill crane
  • Fish: bull trout, cutthroat trout
  • Amphibians: leopard frog

j) Build a healthy partnership with the Oil and Gas Department and Blackfeet Forestry

1) Offer opportunities to comment on management plans between departments
2) Develop trust and improve inter-departmental communication

Required and Existing Authority/Capacity
The Department of Fish and Wildlife has a law enforcement division and a threatened and endangered species program. The Department is currently developing a fisheries program.

Partners and Potential Funding Sources
Internal partnerships to continue and improve include Blackfeet Forestry, Blackfeet Environmental Office, Water Resources Department, the Land Department, Blackfeet Community College, and local school districts. External partnerships to continue and improve are with Glacier National Park, Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Montana Fish and Wildlife, Blackfeet Community College, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Geological Survey, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and non-governmental organizations.

Read about Next Steps for the BCCAP

Go back to the Climate Change Adaptation Plan Home Page

Literature Cited

Halofsky, Jessica E., David L. Peterson, S. Karen Dante-Wood, Linh Hoange, Joanne J. Ho, and Linda A. Joyce. “Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation in the Northern Rocky Mountains.” Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, 2017.


[1] Jessica E. Halofsky et al. (2017), “Climate Change Vulnerability and Adaptation in the Northern Rocky Mountains”, Forest Service U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rocky Mountain Research Station.

[2] Ibid.

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