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Indigenous Organization Helps Prepare for Climate Change on Public Lands

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Kevin Bunch
January 18, 2021
tribal wild rice

Long held up as the coldest and the cleanest of the Great Lakes, Lake Superior is nonetheless seeing the impacts of climate change. Warmer air temperatures have brought more frequent and powerful storms to the region, and Superior is warming faster than the other Great Lakes.

Communities that live and work along the shores of Superior are preparing for these changes by strengthening shorelines and protecting key plants and animals. For Indigenous communities, this preparation extends beyond reservations into ceded territory, specifically those on public lands. 

Indigenous communities face unique challenges due to climate change, with First Nations, the Métis Nation and tribes partnering with a variety of other agencies and organizations to help adapt to future conditions.

In the United States during the 1800s, a number of Ojibwe tribal nations in modern-day Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota signed treaties with the federal government that ceded territory but reserved fishing, hunting and gathering rights.

US federal and state courts have upheld these treaty rights and determined that the tribes have the authority to regulate their members and cooperatively manage ceded territory habitats and ecosystems.

For more than 35 years, the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) has exercised authority delegated to it by its 11 Ojibwe member tribes to operate comprehensive conservation, natural resource protection, conservation enforcement and public information programs designed to implement the tribes’ treaty rights. As well, the organization works to cooperatively manage natural resources and ecosystems within the ceded territories to support those rights, and to promote healthy and safe tribal communities.

“Because of political boundaries, Indigenous communities of today can no longer move to follow culturally and communally important plant and animal beings if they shift their ranges due to climate change in the years to come,” said Robert Croll, climate change program coordinator with GLIFWC. His organization has prioritized identifying “vulnerable beings” such as fish and plants in order to take adaptive measures.

Croll said GLIFWC works on projects related to fish in both Lake Superior and nearby inland lakes. In Superior, researchers are looking at climate impacts on whitefish and lake trout – what they’re eating, depths and temperatures they prefer and whether those things are changing over time as the lake warms. In inland lakes, the organization is following walleye and other fish using radio transmitters to see where they’re moving throughout the year.

GLIFWC’s climate change work also includes a vulnerability assessment which examines a large list of culturally important species, as well as a plant phenology project to look at how climate change may affect the life cycles of 10 culturally important plants.

“We’re looking at different categories in our vulnerability assessment, categories commonly used by Ojibwe people: crawlers, flyers, swimmers, four-leggeds and plants,” said Hannah Panci, climate change scientist with GLIFWC. “We’ve found swimmers and plants are the most vulnerable groups of beings.”

Swimmers including fish are limited in where they can survive, find food and reproduce by a “habitat squeeze” of temperature and oxygen levels at the upper and lower depths, Panci said. This squeeze impacts fish higher in the food web and the creatures they feed on. These fish also face competition from invasive species that in some cases can handle these changing conditions better than native fish. Between all these factors, the lakes are not necessarily as hospitable a place as they used to be, she said.

Plants aren’t particularly mobile and often can’t disperse their seeds very far, so localized changes to habitat and weather patterns can be a problem. Panci said the vulnerability assessment so far has identified manoomin, or wild rice, as the most susceptible to climate change-related problems. This native wetland species requires certain water and weather conditions at different points in its life cycle to thrive, and as an incredibly valuable cultural and culinary part of the traditional Ojibwe way of life, Panci said nearly all the tribal members consulted for this study have talked about it as a concern.

The manoomin study is combining mainstream Western science with traditional ecological knowledge, Croll said. This allows researchers to validate their scientific data collection with knowledge from elders and other community members who routinely go onto public lands to exercise their treaty rights. Since the Ojibwe people have passed along ecological knowledge for generations, Croll said this has provided the researchers with an amazing depth of information.

“In a lot of the climate change work, we’re trying to use traditional knowledge to guide our findings as much as we can and have (Western) science be more of a supporting actor,” Croll said.

The researchers with GLIFWC are not the only ones to have been synthesizing Western science with traditional ecological knowledge. The Saugeen Ojibway Nation has been following changes to the lake whitefish fishery in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay, using information from elders and longtime anglers to determine a baseline for how lake whitefish used to migrate and move around the lake, and how that has changed.

The monitoring program has already found that coldwater whitefish are moving offshore into deeper and cooler waters than they have historically. This can present a problem, as the species uses temperature to indicate when it should spawn in the fall. Warmer weather and water also mean ice will melt sooner, and whitefish depend on ice cover to protect their eggs from the wind.

GLIFWC posted a report with initial findings in 2018, and Croll expects a full vulnerability assessment report will be published by GLIFWC in 2021.

The next step will be to bring together federal, state and tribal agencies that work with GLIFWC to formulate actions they can take to protect vulnerable species and improve their chances of survival. He added that GLIFWC worked with US federal agencies and other partners on a National Fish Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy in 2013 to synchronize plans on the federal, state and tribal levels, and a fresh white paper updating that strategy is forecast to be delivered to the White House in 2021.

Croll said GLIFWC is working with other treaty organizations as well, such as the US-based 1854 Treaty Authority and Grand Council Treaty 3 in Canada.

“I think it’s important to understand that while humans are forced to recognize this line on a map, the rest of our non-human relatives don’t,” Croll said.  

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Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.