ELGIN, Ore. (AP) — Against the backdrop of a region-wide drought, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are bracing for the potentially harmful long-term effects of climate change.
The tribes have secured hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to study climate change in the Pacific Northwest and come up with an action plan to protect the reservation’s natural resources, including traditional First Foods.
Native salmon and steelhead are having an especially tough summer, as intense heat and record-low snowpack have lowered most rivers to a fraction of their normal flows. Wildfires, such as the Blue Creek fire east of Walla Walla, also threaten tribal lands where members hunt and gather.
Data suggests the problem is getting worse, said Patrick Mills with the tribes’ Department of Science & Engineering. Forecasts show the Northwest will be getting hotter in the decades to come.
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“Seasons are going to change,” Mills said. “Generally speaking, we’ll be hotter and wetter.”
Mills is project manager for the tribes’ climate change vulnerability assessment, examining the risks imposed by climate change on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The report, which will be released publicly before the end of the year, was paid for through a $150,000 grant from the BIA.
On Jan. 8, the tribes held a public hearing on climate change at Wildhorse Resort & Casino, where presenters discussed impacts to local weather, water, food and human health. Among the key items of concern in the assessment are tribal First Foods, Mills said.
As weather becomes warmer overall, more precipitation will fall in the form of rain as opposed to snow, Mills said. Snowpack acts as a natural reservoir for streams and rivers, melting gradually over spring and keeping flows at a healthy rate for fish.
“That’s one of the biggest impacts, just when the water flows,” Mills said. “Without (snow), your rainfall comes down and you lose it when you need it most.”
The tribes have already worked for decades to restore salmon runs that were previously wiped out in the Umatilla and Walla Walla basins. Tribal spokesman Chuck Sams said the climate change assessment is a continuation of that work, using the latest in modern science.
Northwest tribes have been concerned about climate change for more than 70 years, Sams said, after the first federal dams were built on the Columbia River. And, since the U.S. has not ratified the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, he said it’s up to them to adapt to climate change.
“Regardless of what the U.S. does, the tribal government still has a responsibility to its own citizenry,” Sams said. “Of course, the primary responsibility is cool, clean water and everything that flows from that.”
With climate change, the Northwest is also starting to see bigger, more intense wildfires, Sams said. Those fires burn hot enough to scorch away the tribes’ roots and berries, and disrupt the migrating patterns of elk, deer and other big game.
The vulnerability assessment, led by Mills, is just the first step of the tribes’ response to climate change. By 2017, the tribes will also develop an action plan and implementation strategy for dealing with issues identified on the reservation.
The BIA recently awarded a $250,000 grant for the action and implementation plans, which will involve input and collaboration from most tribal government departments, Mills said.
“With climate change, there’s limitless ways it can impact folks,” Mills said. “But I think we have identified the most important things to this point.”
Finally, the tribes’ Department of Natural Resources is using Mills’ vulnerability assessment to create an online tool mapping climate information across the reservation. Mills compared the website to Google Earth, but said it will feature layers of climate-related data.
That technology was possible through yet another BIA grant, for $150,000, through the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and will be used by the tribes to research future projects and management.
The effects of climate change are becoming more apparent, Mills said, and with these investments the tribes are keeping pace with the science.
“Of course, the tribes are going to be concerned about changing environments and ecosystems,” he said.
Both Mills and Sams said they expect additional funding from the federal government to see the entire planning process through to fruition.
“It’s adaptation. It’s planning for the worst, and being prepared for it,” he said. “Everybody is saying climate change is going to keep happening, and it’s going to be very adverse to all our ecosystems.”