Water issues are at the core of climate change impacts in the GYA. Communities and environmental managers will continue to face challenges like drought and shifts in seasonal water cycles in the future.
Participants’ understanding of and response to climate change is driven more by their background (stakeholder group) than their location (watershed).
A pressing need exists for a climate information hub that is comprehensive, collaborative, accessible, and useful to experts and the public alike.
For the most part, meaningful policy to address and adapt to climate change is lacking in the GYA.
By addressing water issues like availability and quality in future climate adaptation work, we stand to have positive impacts on myriad other conditions including wildlife habitat, fisheries health, and the economy of local communities.
The Greater Yellowstone Area is home to a great diversity of species and environments and a rich variety of cultures. Our communities have different perspectives on climate issues, as well as different approaches to climate adaptation and resilience work. As we work to better understand how climate change will affect the region, continuous engagement with stakeholders and knowledge of their realities in dealing with climate change can improve effectiveness of GYA science, monitoring, and adaptation.
[C]ontinuous engagement with stakeholders and knowledge of their realities in dealing with climate change can improve effectiveness of GYA science, monitoring, and adaptation.
This chapter speaks to people’s stories and experiences. We recognize that climate change research requires input from multiple disciplines including those of the social sciences. Public opinion and human action play an integral role in ecological management. Our intention is to provide insight for professionals working on climate adaptation and resiliency projects so that they may better integrate community needs into their work. We also hope that the perspectives represented here, coupled with future public meetings in all six watersheds of the GYA, will set the stage for collaborative action among community, agency, and Tribal members that addresses climate adaptation and resilience on a large-landscape scale.
Keeping this in mind, we conducted one-on-one listening sessions with 44 community leaders, city officials, agency biologists, business owners, engaged citizens, and ranchers (Figure 8-1). We chose these participants to get as many diverse perspectives as possible, using existing relationships and reaching out to new individuals. Interviews were conducted remotely either by phone or video, transcribed, then coded and analyzed by a team from The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society, and the University of Wyoming during spring, summer, and fall of 2020. Participants were spread across the six HUC6 watersheds discussed in previous chapters (Figure 8-1; descriptions in Chapter 1): Missouri Headwaters, Upper Yellowstone, Big Horn, Upper Green, Upper Snake, and Snake Headwaters.
To understand how different people and communities view issues related to environmental and climate change, we grouped our participants into six stakeholder groups as described in Table 8-1.
We note two qualifiers to results presented in this chapter. First, we did not have a statistically significant sample size of all stakeholder types throughout the region, nor did we have an equal number of interviews for each type. Thus, our ability to conduct statistical analysis across different watersheds and stakeholder categories—which would have been ideal—was limited. The results presented in this chapter are based on qualitative thematic coding. Our qualitative research interviews with stakeholders coincided with the unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic, which presented a host of challenges both for interviewers and interviewees. Second, the trends we have identified are not absolute and may not be representative of what all members of a given group experience, believe, or do. Nonetheless, these participant responses provide important insights into the concerns of individuals and communities within the GYA and underscores the need for more social science research on climate change.
In this chapter, we summarize stakeholder opinions on the topics of environment and climate change, with related responses sorted into seven categories:
Impacts to stakeholders
Leaders and current work
We asked participants: What worries you the most about projected uncertainty in environmental factors such as temperature, drought, water availability, runoff, soil moisture, fire, or seasonal patterns and climate?
Our first question gave us insight into the issues most concerning to our participants. Our goal was to better understand how different people think about the challenge of climate change. In some cases, these issues may not, to date, have been observed.
Concerns among stakeholder groups
Overall, concerns about water were expressed the most. Various water issues were mentioned in over half of the interviews for every stakeholder group, ranging from just over half of Recreation interviews to all interviews from Tribal members and Local Government/Utilities. Issues like shifts in peak runoff timing and extreme flooding were the main concern for Agency and Conservation stakeholders, while issues of water supply rose to the top for Local Government/Utilities participants. Agriculture producers and Tribal members were equally concerned about the possibility of shifting hydrological events and loss of water supply. Concerns about water quality and temperature were also expressed, although less frequently (Figure 8-2).
“We conducted a survey with all of our 850 rural families and their biggest concern is water. Water is a big concern for everybody.”
— Tribal Member, Upper Yellowstone Watershed
“I think drought is the biggest threat to everything we value in Montana.”
— Conservationist, Missouri Headwaters Watershed
Recreation was the only stakeholder group that mentioned another concern more often than water. Though they still mentioned water in most interviews, these stakeholders were more worried about habitat. This concern may reflect the role that healthy habitats play in many forms of outdoor recreation, including fishing, hiking, hunting, and wildlife watching. Unsurprisingly, Recreation stakeholders were also especially concerned about the impacts of climate change to outdoor recreation.
Local Government/Utility participants were the only other group notably concerned about outdoor recreation, which likely reflects the importance of recreation and tourism economies for many GYA communities. A Local Government/Utility participant working in the Missouri Headwaters watershed explained, “We are a ski resort community, and that is the life blood of what our community thrives on and our local economy.”
Agriculture producers stood out in expressing their concerns about the public’s limited awareness of climate change. They also made explicit mention of having few or no concerns themselves. While these two responses may sound contradictory, many agriculturalists pointed out that producers have always adapted to changing and unpredictable climate conditions. In their view, they will simply continue to do so, even as the climate changes. As one agricultural producer in the Missouri Headwaters put it, they have been adapting “forever on a daily basis” by making decisions about which crops to plant, how and when to irrigate, and more. Expressing a lack of concern does not necessarily mean that Agriculture participants deny that the climate is changing or that there will not be consequences.
“If you’re in agriculture, the key thing is that you are experiencing changes every day. It’s not like this is something like, ‘Oh we have climate change now!’ You’ve been dealing with this on a daily basis.”
— Agricultural Producer, Missouri Headwaters Watershed
Many participants were concerned about the impact of climate change on the region’s communities. Specific concerns included increased wildfire risk, threats to infrastructure, and unsustainable water usage. Concerns about the health of fish and wildlife were also expressed, including climate-triggered fish kills and wildlife population declines. Local Government/Utility and Agriculture participants were most concerned about the effects of climate change on communities, while Conservation and Agency groups more often mentioned threats to fish and wildlife. Tribal and Recreation participants were equally concerned about both topics.
Concerns within watersheds
When we looked at how responses differed among watersheds instead of stakeholder groups, we found similarities. Water-related concerns were paramount in all areas, particularly in the Upper Yellowstone and Missouri Headwaters watersheds where participants specifically expressed concern about declines in water supply. These watersheds are home to the rapidly growing communities of Bozeman and Livingston, Montana, where water demand is on the rise.
Other concerns were strikingly consistent across all watersheds. For example, changes in hydrological events like flooding and peak runoff were raised by two thirds of participants in all areas. Potential climate change impacts to habitat, wildfire, and communities were also mentioned consistently across watersheds. These concerns were widely shared across the GYA, even though stakeholder groups prioritized them differently.
[C]hanges in hydrological events like flooding and peak runoff were raised by two thirds of participants in all areas. Potential climate change impacts to habitat, wildfire, and communities were also mentioned consistently across watersheds.
Concerns about about fish and wildlife, on the other hand, varied dramatically among watersheds, even adjacent ones. For example, participants from the Upper Yellowstone watershed mentioned these concerns in almost three quarters of interviews, yet it never came up in interviews from the Missouri Headwaters watershed. In contrast, every stakeholder in the Snake Headwaters watershed mentioned concerns about the health of fish and wildlife. Sport and native fisheries were the most common focus of this concern, except in the Upper Yellowstone watershed where wildlife was brought up often.
Impacts to Stakeholders
We asked participants: Are changes in environmental factors, seasonal patterns, and climate impacting you and your work today, and if so, how?
Our second question built on the first, by diving deeper into how climate change is currently affecting stakeholders. Their responses illustrate how people from different sectors perceive and experience current conditions.
Impacts on stakeholder groups
All stakeholder groups mentioned water-related impacts more often than any other kind of impact (Figure 8-3). Their collective focus on water impacts was even more prevalent than their concern about future changes in water resources. References to water impacts varied, with all Tribal and Local Government/Utility participants mentioning the issue, while just over half of Conservation and Agency participants did so. Changes in extreme hydrological events, particularly changes in peak runoff and the occurrence of floods, were of paramount concern for all stakeholder groups. This response suggests that recent short-term events stand out in the minds of the participants more than more gradual changes in water supply.
Many participants also noted that these extreme hydrological events ultimately have myriad consequences. A Recreation participant from the Upper Yellowstone watershed related rapid spring runoff to water supply and quality issues, saying, “Even when we do get a good amount of snow, it’s going to come out earlier and faster, leaving us with difficult water conditions in late summer especially.” An Agency participant from the same area noted the effect of spring flooding on habitat, explaining, “There is some information to suggest that, with runoff happening earlier and all at once, that can cause an increased impact on stream channel instability... which has implications for fish habitat.”
Asking about observed impacts also shed light on Agriculture’s lower concern for the future, noted in the previous summary. Three quarters of agriculture participants stated that current changes in climate were not altogether unusual and dealing with them was a routine part of their work. It is not that Agriculture participants fail to see changing conditions, but rather, they have always had to respond to them in one way or another.
Changes in extreme hydrological events, particularly changes in peak runoff and the occurrence of floods, were of paramount concern for all stakeholder groups. This response suggests that short-term events stand out in the minds of the participants more than more gradual changes in water supply.
In terms of the other ecological impacts, the increase of wildfire and rising air temperatures were mentioned by all stakeholder groups, though not in a prominent way. Impacts to fish and wildlife also came up in interviews from all groups, particularly those from Agency or Tribal participants, and impacts to aquatic species were most common.
Observations of current climate change impacts on local communities were mentioned often by all stakeholder groups except Agriculture and Recreation participants. The finding is interesting, considering that all stakeholder groups—including Agriculture and Recreation—expressed community-related concerns for the future. This discrepancy suggests that, while people of all walks of life recognize the threats facing our communities, some stakeholders are in a better position than others to directly witness those changes today.
“Used to be more often than not you’d have the water in the reservoirs. More often than not now we don’t. It’s gotten really unreliable.”
— Agricultural Producer, Upper Green Watershed
Reported community impacts included infrastructure damages from wildfires and flooding, as well as growing demand for water or power. Some participants attributed these impacts to changing environmental conditions. An agency member from the Upper Snake watershed, for example, said, “In 2012 we experienced a small-time disaster here in the area in this region in relation to wildfire, in the Charlotte Fire, that destroyed 60 homes. And while that wasn’t unique in the Intermountain West in 2012, the frequency of those happening seems to be on the rise.”
Other participants highlighted how these issues sometimes are the result of unsustainable land use, including urban sprawl and the development of rural areas. A Local Government/Utility participant in the Upper Yellowstone watershed explained, “Our funding model is not designed to provide services to all parts of the county, and yet we’re being asked to do just that.”
Impacts on watersheds
Accounts of climate change showed some similarities across watersheds. Again, stakeholders cited changes in water factors the most, with observations of extreme hydrological events in all areas. Stakeholders mentioned wildfire impacts in all watersheds, as well, though less frequently than water factors.
Conversely, stakeholders mentioned seeing habitat changes and impacts to communities today in only a few watersheds despite expressing widespread worries on these factors for the future, as mentioned previously. Similarly, observed impacts to fish and wildlife varied between watersheds, in contrast to the general concern in all areas about the health of species in the future. Nearly three quarters of interviewees in the Upper Yellowstone watershed noted changes in fish and wildlife health, whereas participants in the Upper Green watershed described no current impacts.
We asked participants: What are your current sources of information in the Greater Yellowstone Area on environmental factors, seasonal patterns, and climate?
After participants conveyed to us their concerns about environmental change (including those associated with climate change) and the impacts that they have already observed, we wanted to find out where they got their information. Their answers may explain why particular environmental issues are relevant for a given group, helping us develop more effective distribution of environmental and climate change information.
We grouped information into five main sources and two additional sources (Table 8-2). Note that some of these sources have similar names as our stakeholder categories because many stakeholders are actively engaged in information dissemination. The main sources of information—Agency data, Local Government/Utility data, Community Groups, Researchers/Universities, and Personal/Peer Observations—were often mentioned by stakeholders. The two additional sources—Various written media and Collaboratives—were mentioned rarely, preventing us from drawing solid conclusions about the perceived value of these information sources. It is important to note that participants can, and do, take information from multiple sources.
Stakeholder groups used different and often multiple information sources (Figure 8-4). Notably, a considerable amount of information exchange happens between different sources. As an Agency participant in the Snake Headwaters watershed explained, “We usually work pretty closely with and share data with these entities, whether they’re government agencies like the Forest Service or BLM, the National Park Service, or if they’re nonprofit or private agencies as well…there’s just a lot of people working on a lot of similar things, and more often than not, pretty eager and willing to share that data.” Given the nature of information exchange, we base our findings on the final sources where interviewees found their information, and not necessarily the entities that generated that information in the first place. For example, if a nonprofit organization distributed information that was acquired from a federal agency, it was considered as coming from a “community group.” This approach allowed us to focus on the sources most effective at distributing and conveying information, which ultimately determine how visible and impactful that information will be.
Agencies were the most utilized information source by far, referenced in 80% of all interviews. Community Groups and Researchers/Universities were the next most common, with both sources utilized by almost half of the participants. However, Community Groups were a much more common information source than Researchers/Universities for all stakeholder groups except Agency staff. The apparent popularity of Researchers/Universities as a source likely reflects the relatively large number of Agency interviewees in our sample.
We also found that many participants were likely to use data that their own stakeholder group produced. Conservation participants used a significant amount of Community Group information, probably because most interviewees were members of environmental nonprofit organizations. Similarly, Local Government/Utility participants were more likely to use data from Utility entities and city planning departments. Agricultural producers often mentioned that they use Personal/Peer observations, meaning that the information ultimately came from other farmers and ranchers. Interestingly, that was not the case for Recreation participants, who seldom mentioned Personal/Peer observations.
Figure 8-5 shows the types of environmental and climate change information distributed by various sources. Agencies were the primary source for nearly all types of information. Water information came from all five major sources (Agency, Personal/Peer observations, Community Groups, Researchers/Universities, and Local Government/Utility information). Vegetation and habitat data had two sources (Agencies and Researchers/Universities), while species and weather information came in part from a third source (Personal/Peer observations).
Figure 8-6 shows how often these types of information were referenced by different GYA stakeholder groups. Water information was most utilized by all groups to a large degree. The next most popular type was weather information, but it was consulted less often than water information, although a crossover likely exists between these two categories given the impact of weather on the water balance (see Chapter 7). Most participants used just water and weather information, although some Local Government/Utility participants used vegetation and habitat data. Agency participants used many types of information. The limited number of Tribal participants prevented us from quantifying the types of information they used.
We asked participants: What information would you like to have about changes in seasonal patterns and environmental uncertainty, and what format or medium is most useful to you for sharing this information?
Once we understood the information that stakeholders currently use, we then asked what kinds of information they would like to have. Some participants simply wanted more or better versions of the data already available to them, while others had needs that were not currently being met. Thus, the desired information either was not easily accessible or did not exist. We also heard about ways that information could be presented more effectively or made more relevant, as well as the formats and mediums that are most effective.
At least half of participants in all groups mentioned a need for more information on water, even though it is already widely used. Many participants specifically mentioned the need for higher resolution data to enable better understanding of the changes underway in their watershed. For example, an Agency participant in the Upper Yellowstone watershed explained, “We don’t understand how precipitation is going to change in space and time. We could really use more real-time streamflow monitoring on small and medium sized streams.”
More weather information, including current data and future projections, was also a common request for all stakeholder groups. In fact, climate and weather information was mentioned as a need as often as the need for water information by Agriculture and Conservation participants. Additional information on fish and wildlife, and vegetation and habitat was requested by Recreation and Agency participants, who recognized its relevance for outdoor tourism and resource management.
More weather information, including current data and future projections, was [a] common request for all stakeholder groups.
Regarding preferred formats: Conservation, Recreation, Local Government/Utility, and Agency participants all agreed that maps and other visuals are key. Participants also agreed that these materials should be accessible online, although some Agriculture participants asked that important materials also be available in print, so that less technologically savvy individuals could access them.
Many of the participants in our interviews had important insights on how climate and environmental information could be made more available or relevant. For example, many asked for what an agency member from the Snake Headwaters watershed described as, “an open source, user friendly platform” to serve as a comprehensive information hub. The platform could be organized by the state or watershed to cover a wide range of climate topics, including drought and fisheries health, as a centralized and regularly updated source of environmental data. Many interviewees felt that compiling information in this way would greatly boost accessibility to these topics.
Beyond data accessibility, it was equally important that information be digestible for a range of audiences. It was suggested that climate and environmental information be framed and conveyed in a way that would be useful and usable for different communities. To do so, some participants asked that climate change information be presented in the context of present conditions, rather than in the past or even the future. A Conservation participant in the Missouri Headwaters watershed stated, “Everything to do with projections is a sore subject for me. Nobody cares about what’s happening in 2080. That’s just not compelling to anybody... because there is so much uncertainty about projections.”
Others cautioned against “speaking to the choir” and emphasized the importance of using clear terminology and trusted messengers. Information on climate and environmental change should be conveyed by groups or individuals that are locally known and respected, such as conservation districts.
I’m not in the young [rancher] group, but the online ranching magazine sources—Wyoming Livestock Roundup, Drover’s Journal—ranchers trust those. Agricultural media they’ll trust.”
— Agricultural producer, Upper Green watershed
Ultimately, information is only valuable if it is accessible. The ongoing effort to educate Greater Yellowstone’s communities on climate change will require both modern platforms and trusted messengers to bridge the gap between researchers and stakeholders. Taken together, feedback from our interviewees provides valuable insights into how to do this.
The plants, animals, streams, glaciers, air quality, and climate of the GYA are monitored to assess the health and changing conditions of the ecosystem. This information helps land managers, communities, and landowners decide when and where to take action to minimize undesirable change. The following are examples of how long-term monitoring is being applied across the GYA:
Clean Air Act—The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1977 mandated regular monitoring of air quality in all national parks and wilderness areas. In addition to the dangers for human health, air pollution and deposition of pollutants in water and soils can remove soil nutrients, injure vegetation, and acidify and over fertilize lakes and streams. For over 20 yr, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks have operated air quality monitoring stations that track the deposition of sulfur, nitrogen, ozone, and particulate matter in the region (NPSa undated).
Greater Yellowstone Network—For almost two decades, the National Park Service-Greater Yellowstone Network (NPSb undated) has monitored vital signs of ecosystem health, including changes in climate, water quantity and quality, amphibians, wetlands, and whitebark pine (Ray 2019). This network, one of 32 managed by the National Park Service, provides park managers, researchers, and the public with updated scientific information on natural resources in the federal lands of the GYA. Through collaboration with federal agencies, universities, non-governmental organizations, and the public, vital signs monitoring will continue to be an important component of science-based decision-making to maintain functioning ecosystems into the future. The Greater Yellowstone Network utilizes data collected at NOAA weather stations and USGS streamgages located throughout the region. Some stations and gages that have been in place since the early 1900s offer an opportunity to understand historical changes in climate and river flows (see Chapter 3). The Yellowstone and Grand Teton dashboards on the Climate Analyzer (undated) offer a way to explore weather and streamflow data.
National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON)—In addition to the Greater Yellowstone Network, efforts are underway in the GYA to monitor the overall health of the ecosystem. In 2018, NEON—a national network of ecological observatories supported by the National Science Foundation—established a field site in northern Yellowstone National Park, outfitted with atmospheric, soil, and aquatic sensors to monitor climate-driven changes (NEON undated). The Yellowstone site is one of the 81 sites across the country that together aim to provide continuous long-term and continental-scale observations of ecological change.
RiverNET—Other monitoring efforts in the GYA include RiverNET, a program launched by the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center in 2018 (YERC undated). The goal of RiverNET is to gather water quality and flow information along a stretch of the Yellowstone River north of Yellowstone National Park. Data from this effort will provide the information needed to detect shifts in stream conditions from changes in climate and land use. The design of RiverNET is intended to be transferable to other watersheds in the GYA.
Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee (GYCC)—Researchers are studying glaciers, snow, and icefields of the GYA to understand how they are changing (see boxes, Chapters 2 and 3). The GYCC (GYCC undated) has sponsored efforts by the US Forest Service and National Park Service to create a long-term monitoring program of glaciers in the Teton, Wind River, and Beartooth ranges (USFS undated). The program in Grand Teton National Park visually captures the transformation of the glaciers using repeat photography and other measurements of ice volume and flow (NPSc undated). Artifacts emerging from melting snow and icefields in the GYA are providing a wealth of biological and cultural information dating back as far as 10,000 yr (see box on snow and icefields, Chapter 2).
Findings from these long-term monitoring programs help us to understand when, where, and why a species or ecological processes becomes vulnerable. For example, while drought can occur any time, climate projections suggest that late-summer drought will increase in the coming decades (see Chapter 7). Understanding which species are most susceptible and where drought is likely to be most intense helps managers anticipate where action might be needed. For example, a) amphibian species, such as the boreal chorus frog, are more susceptible to drought than longer-lived species that can avoid breeding during the driest years; and b) the extent of wetlands in the southwestern corner of Yellowstone National Park are more susceptible to drought than those in the seemingly drier northern part.
Another example of how long-term monitoring informs ecosystem health is tracking whitebark pine in the GYA. Many of the large, cone-producing whitebark pines have been killed over the past decade by mountain pine beetle. The recent beetle epidemic resulted from warm winter temperatures that caused mountain pine beetle populations to explode and move to higher elevations into whitebark pine forests (see box on wildfire, Chapter 5). At the same time, non-native blister rust fungus is also killing whitebark pines, and its spread is favored by high humidity. Knowing how temperature and humidity influence the diseases and pests that kill pine trees helps managers decide where protection and planting of new seedlings are likely to succeed. Monitoring forest health, in light of future climate projections, may help give one of the GYA’s most majestic conifers a better chance at survival in the decades ahead.
Leaders and Current Work
We asked participants: Who is leading work in your community on resilience or adaptation projects related to environmental uncertainty? Where is it being done? What are they doing?
We were interested in participants’ knowledge of groups working to address climate change—be it through mitigation, resilience, or adaptation—and the specific projects those groups were leading. Though there were exceptions, participants were mostly aware of leaders in their stakeholder group.
Participants’ knowledge of projects was also tied to their expertise, which, for many, was water. For example, Agency participants mentioned projects that focused on water supply, communities, and aquatic species projects. Most Agency participants worked as habitat or species-specific biologists, which may explain why water and habitat-related projects were mentioned often. Several monitoring efforts are also already underway on federal lands, which Agency interviewees were particularly aware of given their involvement in monitoring work (see box).
Other projects mentioned by participants varied widely, and included fuel reduction, cheatgrass management, beaver translocations, Zeedyk structure implementations, and native fish restoration. Note that many of these projects serve more than one objective. For example, a habitat restoration project might also stabilize a bank from erosion and provide more shade, thereby reducing temperature and improving water quality for fish. This may help explain the variety of responses we received, since any given project can be described multiple ways depending on one’s own knowledge and priorities.
Current work by stakeholder group
Agriculture participants most often mentioned projects related to water supply, water quality, and vegetation, as well as projects related to fish and wildlife. Their list of projects further emphasized the importance of adaptation efforts in agriculture; for example, work on soil microbes to improve soil health was mentioned by several participants. A producer in the Upper Snake watershed brought up “alternative crops,” suggesting “fall wheat instead of spring wheat. The fall grain… it’s coming up as soon as the snow melts. It requires roughly one less irrigation [cycle] during July, and that saves some water.” The importance of adaptive irrigation was also mentioned even by many non-agriculture participants, including a Recreation participant in the Upper Yellowstone watershed who noted that “most [agricultural producers] are used to the wildly fluctuating weather. Many established folks have stock ponds and water storage and are used to rolling with the punches.”
Local Government/Utility participants spoke mostly about projects related to their work on water supply and quality, and community projects. One participant in the Missouri Headwaters watershed talked about efforts to upgrade hydropower facilities, “increasing the flexibility of the power plants to efficiently generate through a wider range of flow conditions.” An Agency participant in the Upper Snake watershed spoke about Local Government/Utility work, citing the city of Chubbuck ID and how it invested in wastewater infrastructure by installing “water lines and wastewater lines into easements that extend far outside the city in preparation for growth.”
The Crow Reservation is located in south central Montana, in the heart of our traditional homelands. As we live in a wide-open landscape and are tied to a different time than the fast pace of western life, our understanding of nature and observations of the seasons comes from the eye instead of a calendar or watch.
Climate change is already impacting our lands, our waters, our health and well-being. To better understand these impacts, we interviewed 26 Crow Elders about their perceptions of changes in local weather patterns and ecosystems throughout their lifetime, and how they are being affected. We conducted a thematic analysis of the interviews.
Interviewees’ observations paralleled and elaborated on instrumental climate data: We are experiencing far less snowfall and milder winters, increased spring flooding, hotter summers, and more severe wildfire seasons. Additionally, many Elders commented on extreme, unusual, and unpredictable weather events, compared to earlier times when the seasons were consistent year after year.
Interviews notably identified declines in wild foods, which have not been recorded by scientists; wild game, fish, berries, and medicinal plants are being detrimentally affected in diverse ways. Our homes and infrastructure have been hit time after time by high floods; we have few resources to repair the damage, so this is taking a toll on families, including on our health and well-being.
In addition to ecosystem resource losses and changes, we are devastated by the loss of coal jobs and coal tax revenue. More than 1200 coal mining and tax-funded jobs have been lost in the past couple years, in a community of about 8000 people. Without that income and lacking any other tax structure, we cannot adequately fund our government nor maintain our infrastructure.
Through the research we have been conducting on climate change and with our Tribal Elders, we are able to better understand what has been happening and anticipate what is to come. Although we are enduring unprecedented environmental change and extreme economic conditions, we are looking for solutions we can implement ourselves.
For more information, see Martin et al. (2020).
Conservation participants were most aware of ongoing projects that had a community emphasis. Participants mentioned multi-stakeholder initiatives, including the Upper Yellowstone watershed Group. This group is one example of many working to address climate change by developing a drought management plan for different stakeholders if faced with drought conditions in the future.
Recreation participants were also more likely than others to know about work being done within their group. For example, one participant in the Upper Yellowstone watershed spoke about his company’s efforts to connect their clients to the reality of climate change by sending thank you emails to clients that contained conservation information and links to relevant organizations. The company also looked for fishing and hunting guides with training in programs that include a conservation component. The participant was also familiar with community groups, like environmental organizations, leading projects related to water availability and aquatic species. This familiarity may reflect the fact that many non-governmental organizations push for community and business involvement.
Across all stakeholder groups, needs for policy and water-related projects (especially to address water supply issues) were mentioned more than any other category.
Results considered by watershed
By comparing projects across watersheds, it was possible to see where and what climate-related work is being done. The Missouri Headwaters and Upper Yellowstone watersheds clearly stand out as places where adaptation efforts are underway by Agency, Recreation, Agriculture, Local Government/Utility, and Community group stakeholders, although no interviewee was fully aware of all efforts in their watershed. Discussions and insights provided by Tribal members indicate their concerns and efforts to confront climate change, including building resiliency and sharing information, as well as the limited knowledge that others have of these efforts (see boxes).
We asked participants: If there are no resilience or adaptation projects in your community, do you perceive a need for such efforts? If so, please say more about what would best serve you and your community.
We were interested in learning about gaps in the work currently being done, allowing stakeholders to describe their group’s unmet needs. By comparing the responses by group and watershed, we can better understand what projects are most needed within groups and across the GYA. As with the previous question, responses about project needs varied widely.
Across all stakeholder groups, needs for policy and water-related projects (especially to address water supply issues) were mentioned more than any other category. Other prominent needs related to more monitoring and data collection, funding and human resources, efforts in habitat and species conservation, and wildfire mitigation projects, in that order.
Agency participants cited the need for projects to improve habitat, undertake more extensive monitoring, and protect water supplies, all of which require additional resources and funding. One Agency participant in the Upper Snake watershed described their unique needs as resource managers, explaining, “One of the issues that we still struggle with is to have common information utilized by multiple agencies… We all have access to some of the same information, but some agencies have a different mission than others and utilize the information differently. It’d be nice to have a consortium of these interest groups come together to describe how they use data and try to reach synergy in how the data is used to make management decisions, because we’re concerned that sometimes decisions are made that are in conflict.”
Multiple Agency participants focused on improving their interactions with agricultural producers. For example, some Agency participants emphasized that there was a huge gap in understanding the goals of their staff versus those of agricultural producers. One Agency participant in the Big Horn watershed wanted to “facilitate changes so agriculture producers can stay ahead of the game [of climate/water changes], rather than respond to the problem when it comes... the changes really need to be made in small producers, but the small producers need a return on investment right away, which can be difficult to provide.” Another Agency member from the Big Horn watershed highlighted that “the elephant in the room is the diversions for agriculture use. Many of the streams and rivers in Wyoming are over allocated. There needs to be gages on all the head gates and better enforcement on that… We need them to acknowledge that they care and they are part of the problem. We’re all in this together.”
“We’re all in this together.”
— Agency Member, Big Horn Watershed
Agriculture participants most frequently mentioned the need for projects to monitor water supply or water quality, as well as for more available project funding. These needs often centered on irrigation. As one Agricultural producer in the Upper Green watershed stated, “I think we’re going to have less water to irrigate, and as irrigators we’re going to need other methods.” Interestingly, the producer went on to point out potential opportunities pending available water, saying, “I think what you’re also going to see in climate change, which is going to be a benefit to this valley and a benefit to… high [elevation] areas, is we’re going to have longer growing seasons, we’re going to be able to grow more… there’s going to be more agricultural opportunities in cultivated ground if there’s any water left.” Another Agricultural participant in the Upper Yellowstone watershed related future water supply and quality to issues of housing development on the rural landscape. That individual explained that “open space is going to be a crucial issue to water going forward. Any time you’ve put a house on it you change the water. Housing development has more runoff from nitrates than a ranch does because they’re trying to keep their lawns green.”
In 2017, Upper Snake River Tribes (USRT) Foundation Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (Petersen et al. 2017) was released as a collaborative project of the USRT Foundation and its member Tribes (Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribes, Burns Paiute Tribes). The report considers the species, habitats, and resources that are important and valuable to USRT member Tribes. Climate change impacts on these resources have the potential to affect Tribal members’ culture, spirituality, and lifeways. Combining the best available climate projections for the region with traditional knowledge, Tribal priorities, and local observations was central to the success of the assessment effort.
The report includes: 1) a summary of downscaled future climate projects for the eastern Snake River Plain; 2) a detailed description of the vulnerability assessment progress and outcomes; 3) discussion of the Tribes’ adaptation planning process; and 4) a listing of the adaptation actions developed for the plant and animal species assessed. The goal has been to lay a foundation for building resilience among the USRT member Tribes and enhancing the resilience of natural resources that are an integral part of the culture.
A Climate Change Core Team of Tribal staff worked collectively with outside consultants to identify those aspects of climate change that were of greatest concern and determine appropriate adaptation actions for critical plant and animal species and their habitats.
The Core Team identified 35 plant and animal species, seven resource issues, and four habitats of concern for inclusion in the assessment. Thirty-four species were assessed quantitatively using NatureServe’ Climate Vulnerability Index (CCVI), which evaluates vulnerability in light of projected changes in air temperature, moisture availability, species range data, and species-specific life history characteristics. Project consultants and the Core Team worked collaboratively to vet preliminary CCVI results and integrate local and traditional knowledge (as appropriate) in assigning final species’ vulnerability rankings.
The final phase of the vulnerability assessment project focused on developing strategies and actions to increase the resilience of the habitats where the assessed species live. Due to the interconnected nature of the ecosystems and habitats on which these species depend, adaptation planning focused on developing strategies and actions that would strengthen the climate resilience of habitats, thereby supporting the needs of the individual species.
The report concludes:
Changing climate conditions have already altered and will continue to affect the natural resources, landscapes, and people of the Upper Snake River watershed. By taking the initiative to explicitly identify Shared Concerns and assess their climate change vulnerability, the USRT’s four member Tribes have begun the process of climate change adaptation.
Conservation participants described the need for more monitoring and data collection, changes in policy, and additional projects that address water supply, fish and wildlife, and habitat. A participant in the Upper Yellowstone watershed described the most pressing needs, as follows:
“[M]ore information and data is a big need… the awareness is already there, but we need more information and tools in the toolbox.”
— Conservation Stakeholder, Upper Yellowstone Watershed
Local Government/Utility participants cited the need for projects focused on water supply, policy change, and new monitoring and data. One participant from the Missouri Headwaters watershed spoke about a new way to monitor and manage water usage, and the need for other communities to adopt it. The system monitors “residential and commercial use by the hour,” ultimately helping quickly identify problems such as unusual spikes in usage. Other Local Government/Utility participants focused on better water management in drought years and better planning for water shortages.
Recreation participants cited the need for new policy, new habitat and conservation projects, and new efforts to monitor water supply. Habitat projects to improve the health of tributaries for fish spawning or to maintain cool water temperatures were of particular interest. Like Agency participants, Recreation interviewees also mentioned the need to work with Agricultural producers to ensure that water is used more effectively. A Recreation participant in the Upper Snake Headwaters watershed explained, “Some of that [water use] may require changes in water law because many senior water rights holders are afraid they’ll lose their water rights if they don’t use them every year… this change is necessary to reflect the fact that water is now recognized as important not just for irrigation, but also for fish, recreation economies, etc.”
Our Tribal participants spoke about policy and monitoring needs:
“Given that the bulk of stewardship [for the Tribes] happens locally, it would serve our community to have a greater sense of guiding stewardship discussions and planning in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We are the original inhabitants of the area and our traditional ecological knowledge should hold a significant place in contemporary management discussions. Often our priorities are in line with the top-order goals of preserving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but we seem to have a disconnect with lower order objectives and strategies for achieving those goals. One example might be forest management, where the risk of a stand replacing fire is high the Forest Service might prefer a logging operation, where the Tribes may prefer thinning and re-introducing fire back into that landscape to mitigate the risks.”
— Tribal Member, Upper Snake Watershed
By looking at project needs across watersheds, we can start to visualize these types of projects on a spatial scale. For example, needs related to water and policy were mentioned in all six of the watersheds. We also identified needs for monitoring and data collection, and for additional funding and resources. Highest priorities were related to protecting water supplies, fish, and wildlife.
We asked participants: What policy efforts are underway related to changes in environmental factors, seasonal patterns, and climate? How can we build on them?
Our intent in asking participants about climate change policies was to gauge their awareness of and opinions on this topic. Notably, stakeholders’ views and understanding of policies do not necessarily reflect the regulatory landscape present in the GYA, nor the past, current, or potential future policies of federal land management agencies, state agencies, local governments, or Tribal governments. Our findings presented here in no way should be considered recommendations by
entities that collaborated on this Assessment.
Many participants were unaware of current policies that address climate change and water. An Agency participant in the Upper Green watershed said, “I don’t know of regional policy… or true initiatives at state or county level.” Participants also brought up how it is hard to stay informed about current policy and the impact that it has on a state level.
“In Wyoming in particular, the state delegation has been slow to react to the issue of climate change and thus need more public input, which means the public must first have the information to convey the issues in an educated manner...information regarding policy is not always easy to find or research.”
— Recreation Interviewee, Big Horn Watershed
Some participants talked about recent rollbacks of climate change and water policies. A Tribal member in the Upper Snake watershed said, “During the past four years, the wide shift in [federal] administration policy has taken us years back in terms of managing to alleviate the risks of climate impacts.” Other interviewees expressed frustration about the policy makers’ lack of transparency in setting climate change policies and their denial about the topic of climate change. A Conservation participant in the Big Horn watershed lamented, “My overwhelming sense is all policy efforts from the national to the state level are related to denying changes in environmental factors and we are in a crisis. We do not hear from agencies about what they are doing because they learned not to raise their heads even though there may be some of that occurring quietly.”
When aware of existing policy efforts, participants mostly spoke about policies that their organization, agency, and/or company were working on, developing, or advocating for. Most of these policies are at an agency level. For example, Agency participants spoke about their work to address climate change in state-level habitat plans, with one member in the Big Horn watershed emphasizing the importance of project prioritization to allocate funding and personnel effectively. Other agency participants mentioned that some agencies have groups specifically assigned to address climate adaptation, including the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, which has a subcommittee on Climate Change Adaptation, and the Custer Gallatin National Forest’s Climate Adaptation Group.
At a federal level, some participants noted the need to elect legislators who are concerned about climate change so that traction could be gained for large-scale policy initiatives. A Conservation participant in the Missouri Headwaters watershed put this idea in perspective, saying that “telling Montanans that turning off your lights is going to deal with the issue is setting false expectations and is not honest.”
“The single most important thing we can do in 2020 is [to get our legislators to] adopt a climate platform.”
— Conservation Participant, Missouri Headwaters Watershed
Calls from stakeholders for future policies related to climate change often highlighted the importance of cooperation. One Conservation participant from the Upper Snake watershed alluded to the need for more “regional coordination,” and a Recreation interviewee in the Upper Yellowstone watershed expressed the need for all watershed members to work more closely together to address water needs in a changing environment. That individual stated, “The key is changes to water law to reflect that water is not just a resource to be used in the traditional sense for irrigating, and that we all have a stake in the river and its health and that we aren’t fighting each other.”
Participants in every watershed of the GYA spoke about policy needs. However, their answers varied so widely that it was difficult to extract any common themes. More specific follow-up questions need to be asked to better understand current efforts to develop policy from a geographical perspective.
On August 11, 2020, a tornado touched down 6 miles northwest of Riverton, Wyoming. In the Shoshone oral tradition of passing down stories from elders to youth for millennia, we have no history of tornados in our ancestral homelands. Our climate is changing.
Serving on the Eastern Shoshone Business Council for 20 yr beginning in 1979 was an honor and privilege of a lifetime. Being in this position not only gave me the wonderful opportunity of getting to know the families and relatives of the Shoshone Tribe, it also empowered me to understand how governance is exercised by Tribes without a Constitution. It has been my responsibility to breathe life into our treaties and rid ourselves from the devastating impacts of colonization. This is one approach to take care of our people, our land, waters, and our climate.
In the Chambers of the Joint Business Council of the Shoshone and Arapaho Tribes hang two large portraits. One of Chief Washakie of the Eastern Shoshone and one of Sharp Nose of the Northern Arapaho. Sometimes when I was alone in the Chambers, I would look up at these two men and they would seem to be looking at me asking, “What are you doing to help the people?” I tried to imagine the tremendous pressure and heartache they must have endured when the way of life they knew was being threatened. When Chief Washakie signed the Eastern Shoshone Treaty of 1863, whereby the United States recognized Tribal rights to 44,000,000 acres (17,000,000 hectares) of land in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, there must have been some sense of relief that a way of life would be protected and allowed to flourish in traditional homelands and hunting and gathering grounds. Promises made to protect and support the Shoshone people in this 1863 Treaty were ignored five years later in the Treaty of 1868, which reduced the Shoshone Reservation to 2,500,000 acres (1,000,000 hectares).
Even after this severe transgression, the Shoshone people never lost their connection to this land that sustained them since time immemorial. The Greater Yellowstone Area was their garden, pharmacy, church, hospital, grocery store, and park, amongst many other uses. This abundance of life-sustaining gifts was respected and revered with the “you take care of us, we take care of you” belief that is the cornerstone of Indigenous values and beliefs. This reciprocity is a way of life that has empowered us to weather the many storms of colonization and inequity.
The monetary value attached to that which is provided by Mother Earth has led to destruction of resources and caused irreparable harm to lands, waterways, and air. This natural imbalance can be seen through fires, mudslides, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and other violent weather events that are ever more frequent and more destructive. Indigenous people understand the calamity will continue until the reciprocity of “you take care of us, we take care of you” is strengthened and restored. This is more than governance. It is spirituality in its most open and literal sense. The Indigenous connect to all above ground and all below ground through a spiritual inter-connectedness that transcends physicality.
I have witnessed humble Indigenous men and women perform healing and spiritual connections that most modern-day religious leaders could only dream of. The reason for this gift is a full recognition of the spirit within all animate and inanimate beings. The wind, the lightning, the tornado, the fierce storms that are becoming more common have a spirit. Indigenous people used to have many elders who understood how to communicate with this spiritual realm, but numbers are dwindling. We are losing this critical connection. Can Indigenous people help reverse this? Maybe. We were all Indigenous at one time and understood the need to be thankful.
There remains a strong Indigenous connection to the GYA. For the most part, those of us fortunate enough to live within the GYA are incredibly thankful to be from this part of the world. GYA has been “taking care of us.” We must renew our efforts to the GYA to “take care of you.” The Indigenous connection of the GYA spans the Native Tribes in the United States and Native Bands in Canada. These entities exercise governance in the forms of policies, codes, standards, regulations, guidelines, and other management and enforcement actions, and these values and beliefs are recognized by the United States Government through environmental and antiquities laws.
Tribal and Band governments have difficulty in assembling the administrative and technical capabilities to address grassroots concerns for protecting rivers and traditional human uses. The reach of Indigenous governance, however, should begin by recognizing reciprocity as a catalyst to return to our Tribal heritage and revive reciprocity as the dominant force in respecting the GYA. For anyone that has ever experienced the GYA, it never rubs off. It remains in our hearts and our minds and our spirits because of its power and spirit. We feel it. We live it. We breathe it. We must correct the imbalance for the benefit of our climate.
In the face of climate change, the fate of communities and environments depends on people. For the GYA, climate change mitigation and adaptation will ultimately be defined by the views and actions of its people.
Our interviews show that those stakeholders, even with greatly varying backgrounds, feel common concerns regarding climate change. For this reason, continued stakeholder engagement, to gauge their needs and learn from their perspectives, presents an important opportunity to improve GYA science and adaptive management outcomes. To this end, no substitute exists for real relationships, conversations, and curiosity.
We gleaned many important takeaways from the 44 interviews summarized here. We learned that water is most people’s primary focus, both in terms of their current efforts and observations, as well as the work already underway. Specific impacts included drought, spring runoff, and declining native fisheries. We also found that, while water supply is often the main concern, many community members also recognize that addressing water issues will benefit other aspects of the environment, as well.
Overall, GYA communities are clearly aware of the looming threats from climate change. The findings here can help us better inform and prepare to face those threats.
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 The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee (GYCC) is made up of 12 federal land managers in the GYA, including representation from the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the directors of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming’s state fish and game agencies. The GYCC allows the federal land managers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to pursue opportunities for voluntary cooperation and coordination at the landscape scale.