The Blackfeet Nation began the formal climate change adaptation process in 2016, facilitated by the Blackfeet Environmental Office and the Center for Large Landscape Conservation. The planning process was guided by the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals’ (ITEP’s) Adaptation Planning Toolkit, and by the National Wildlife Federation’s paper “Climate Smart Conservation: Putting Adaptation Principles into Practice”. Molly Cross, Director of Climate Change Adaptation for the North America Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society, began the planning process began by reviewing climate change trends and predictions. Cross created a summary table of the predicted climate change impacts specific to the northwest Montana region. The project team presented the climate predictions summary table at a series of three information and planning meetings with resource managers; then the planning team facilitated discussions with managers and other experts to identify sector-specific impacts within the Blackfeet Nation. The work resulted in the eight subsequent planning areas, or sectors, showcased in the following chapters: agriculture, cultural resources and traditions, fish, forestry, human health, land and range, water, and wildlife.
Sector planners were guided through a process of identifying sector-specific vulnerabilities, using ITEP’s Vulnerability and Risk Matrices and ITEP’s Identifying Priority Planning Areas tool (see Tables 1, 2, and 3). Vulnerability is the susceptibility of a system to harm from climate impacts. Vulnerable systems are usually both sensitive to climate and are less able to adapt. Vulnerability and risk analyses assisted planners in determining scope, facilitating the selection of areas within each sector that should be prioritized as a planning area. For example, health sector planners elected to focus on air quality and vector-borne diseases, even though climate change is impacting many other facets of human health, including water quality, food security, cancer, etc. Prioritization was important because each sector is very broad, with many climate change impacts. Prioritizing areas with the greatest vulnerability helps focus the plan and increase the ability of managers to identify and then implement action steps.
Table 1: Vulnerability Matrix
Vulnerability is the susceptibility of a system to harm from climate impacts. Vulnerable systems are usually both sensitive to climate and are less able to adapt.
Table 2: Risk Matrix
Vulnerability & Risk ⇒ Priorities
Table 3: Identifying Priority Planning Areas
From the identified impacts and vulnerability assessments, the project team then worked with managers in each sector to create goals, strategies, and actions for climate change adaptation. As the chapters were drafted and revised, the planning team would often follow-up with in-person development meetings, emails, and phone calls to planners until the chapters were completed.
Each chapter (with the exception of the cultural resources and traditions) is organized into five main sections. The introduction identifies the planning area that is the focus of the chapter. The observed impacts section identifies climate change impacts that are currently taking place. The expected impacts section identifies climate change impacts that are projected to occur by the end of the century. The observed impacts and expected impacts sections 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. literature like the Montana Climate Assessment). These hypotheses were formed for the purposes of assessing climate change vulnerability and then strategizing adaptation goals and actions. The assessment section shows the conclusions the planners reached about probability of impacts (confidence and potential consequences) to the planning area(s), as well as their conclusions about levels of risk (estimated risk and priority) and vulnerability (exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity). The adaptation strategies section outlines the planners’ goals, strategies, actions for adapting to climate change. Goals are the major results planners want to accomplish, the broad primary outcome. Strategies are the approaches planners want to take to achieve the goals. Actions are the physical steps (often measurable) that the planners might take to accomplish the goals. Finally, the sections conclude, to varying degrees based on planners’ objectives, to identify the required and existing authority/capacity in the sector, partners and potential funding sources, funding needs for addressing the estimate impacts, and existing programs that contribute towards resilience.
Planners’ preferences in approach varied for each sector, as evidenced by variability in style between chapters. Some planners chose to incorporate suggested impact statements from literature reviews, while others relied primarily on their own observations and expertise. Some planners preferred a broader scope, as evidenced by the agriculture and human health chapters, while others chose a narrower focus and/or committed to fewer actions. The latter approach may reflect staff availability and funding outlooks, as each planning team has a thorough understanding of the resources and staff time available in their respective departments. For example, the fish chapter reflects that the tribe is in the process of hiring a fisheries biologist. The cultural resources and traditions chapter is unique in that it does not include a set of goals, strategies, and actions like the other chapters, something that should be addressed in the next round of planning. The planning process provided flexibility in these regards, understanding that each sector operates differently. The planning team emphasized the importance of chapter authors exercising full ownership over their section of the plan.
This plan covers eight sectors: agriculture, cultural resources and traditions, forestry, fish, human health, land and range, water, and wildlife. While it is broad in this respect, it still does not cover every important sector, and other sectors that will be impacted by climate change should be considered in future planning processes (e.g. infrastructure development, housing, education, recreation, etc.). Additionally, the plan does not cover the full breadth of any of the eight sectors, as time and financial constraints required more focus for the initial planning effort. In the future, climate change planning should consider possibly adding more planning areas in each sector (or, alternatively, reducing the scope of focus in sectors where planning may prove to be too broad to implement).
The plan provides a thorough description of the context in which the Blackfeet live and manage, detailing the climate change drivers and impacts observed and projected for the region, as well as the tribe’s cultural, historical, and socioeconomic context. A limitation of this plan is that it does not include monitoring and evaluation of outcomes or outputs in any of the sectors. Until a monitoring component is added, it will be difficult to measure or assess the impact of adaptation actions.
And yet the plan is a key ignition point for driving momentum in formal climate change planning and implementation. In this regard, the planning process was just as important, if not more so, as the product. The planning process ensured that, as much as possible, sector managers wrote and took full ownership of their sections in the plan. The planning itself brought people together from multiple departments, multiple times, bringing new information about climate change, sparking conversations that spanned departmental boundaries, and ultimately bringing the urgency of climate change to the forefront of decision-makers’ minds. Dialogue throughout the planning process increased understanding of intersecting roles and responsibilities related to resource management, and improved communication. The planning process increased awareness of existing and future climate change impacts to the Blackfeet Nation while underscoring that the Pikuni people have the power to act now to increase their resilience to climate change.
Ultimately, the planning process built momentum around planning and adaptation in such a way that the process sparked a climate change internship program for 10 Blackfeet youth, a new website that highlights climate-related environment and health impacts and adaptation opportunities, and a new climate adaptation initiative, called The Beaver Project, that is designed to increased natural water storage in the Blackfeet Nation. While the plan does not do everything, both the product and the process have increased commitment to building resilience to climate change.