The news is full of sad stories about dying animals, species of all kinds being wiped out, and the random shooting of animals, among other depressing events. Amid all that it’s easy to forget that efforts aplenty are afoot to reverse the declines, save species, restore habitat and pull endangered animals back from the edge of extinction. The animals and birds are our brothers and sisters, after all.
Here are seven examples of tribal initiatives that are taking back the spirit of environmental stewardship—be they restoring the land, reintroducing species or creating safe conditions for their intersection with modern human life.
The Animals’ Bridge
Wildlife navigating our busy highways must participate in a deadly game to make it to the other side. Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks department reports that wildlife trying to cross busy U.S. Highway 93 in western Montana often resulted in injured and dead deer, bears, bobcats and other creatures. But that was before wildlife passageways through the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana became part of the reconstructed 56-mile stretch.
The Flathead’s Animals Bridge offers wildlife a safe way to make the perilous crossing. The project has set a new standard for maintenance of movement migration opportunities for wildlife near highways. It’s a cooperative effort by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT), and state and federal highway agencies. CSKT monitors the wildlife crossing structures to ensure their measures are working.
“The reservation has an incredible mix of wildlife species, and that creates an incredible mix of wildlife and habitat issues,” Dale Becker, manager of CSKT’s Tribal Wildlife Management Program, told Montana Outdoors.
Cocopah Indians Restore Wildlife Habitat
The Cocopah Indians in southwestern Arizona partnered with the National Wildlife Federation’s Tribal Partnerships Program (NWF) in 2006 to restore shoreline habitat along several miles of the Colorado River, where it flows through the tribe’s reservation near the Mexican border. The NWF program hired workers to tear out stands of salt cedar, an invasive plant that grows in dense thickets and overwhelms native trees and shrubs. In its place, the workers planted mesquite and other native species that provide feeding and resting habitat for migrating birds. The tribe’s habitat now draws wildlife that include threatened and endangered bird species.
Bringing the Buffalo Home
The NWF in partnership with the Fort Peck and Fort Belknap tribes was successful in convincing the state of Montana to transfer more than 60 bison back to tribal lands in March of 2012. After more than a century away, wild bison were returned to roam the Great Plains in Montana. The bison have restored balance to the land with native wildlife and plants like native grasses and wildflowers that rely on the bison thriving, the NWF says.
Earlier this month the U.S. Department of the Interior reaffirmed its commitment to restoring bison to “appropriate and well-managed levels on public and tribal lands” by working with states, tribes and other partners. A DOI statement said the agency was unwaveringly committed to working with tribes to restore bison on public and tribal lands owing to its “cultural, religious, nutritional, and economic importance to many tribes.” Their Bison Report released on June 30 outlines the agency’s plans to work with tribes, states, landowners, conservation groups, commercial bison producers and agricultural interests to restore the bison population to a “proper ecological and cultural role on appropriate landscapes within its historical range.”
Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma Eagle Rehabilitation Program
The Bah Kho-je Xla Chi (Grey Snow Eagle House), completed in January 2006 through U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Iowa Tribe funding, is part of the tribe’s eagle rehabilitation program designed to protect injured eagles, and increase community awareness of wildlife and Native American culture. The Iowa Tribe is the first tribe in the country permitted through the USFWS as Eagle Rehabilitators. Their aviary manager is a USFWS-certified eagle rehabilitator and an Iowa Tribal Elder. Since the program’s implementation, the Iowa Tribe has received more than 8,500 visitors from around the world.
As of March 2013, the Grey Snow Eagle House accommodates 46 non-releasable eagles—12 golden eagles and 34 bald eagles. The tribe has successfully rehabilitated eight bald eagles and released them back into the wild.
Grey Snow Eagle House operates under four USFWS permits. The religious-use permit allows the tribe to house eagles that are non-releasable due to the nature or severity of their injuries and allows the tribe to gather naturally molted feathers and distribute them for use in cultural ceremonies. A second permit allows the tribe to rehabilitate eagles for eventual release. An eagle exhibition permit allows eagles trained to sit on the glove to go out and teach the public about eagles and Native American culture. A scientific permit allows the facility to study eagles for future conservation efforts.
Partnership Protects Wildlife in Northern Cheyenne Country
Deer are declining across the west by at least 10 percent, according to the Denver Post. The Powder River Basin, which stretches from Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains to the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana, is important habitat for many species, including mule deer, an indicator species. It’s also one of the major regions for energy development such as oil and gas, as well as coal mining, that threaten the Basin’s Otter Creek and Tongue River Valley adjacent to the 444,000-acre Northern Cheyenne reservation in southeast Montana. The area is premier habitat for elk, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, wild turkeys and the threatened greater sage grouse. The Northern Cheyenne subsistence hunt deer and elk when numbers are adequate, and there is exceptional warm-water fishing in the Tongue River, in which the Northern Cheyenne have Tribal Water Rights.
“Mule deer populations in southeastern Montana are struggling from habitat loss, climate change and increasing habitat fragmentation from energy development,” says Alexis Bonogofsky, NWF’s Tribal Lands Partnerships Program Manager. “The Otter Creek and Tongue River Valley’s are a necessary migration corridor for mule deer and provide high quality habitat for hundreds and hundreds of wildlife species. That’s why we are working with concerned Northern Cheyenne tribal citizens and some council members to protect the region.”
Yurok Tribe’s Northern California Condor Program
There’s a spiritual connection between condors and the people of the Yurok Tribe in northern California. Condors play an integral role in the Yurok’s World Renewal ceremony, held to keep the world in balance. The tribe’s Condor Program to restore the California condor to the Pacific Northwest is part of the tribe’s obligation to heal the world.
The program is one of many Yurok endeavors that aim to return Yurok ancestral territory to a self-sustaining place in which animals and humans can thrive. Yurok country is relatively pristine habitat with miles of undeveloped forests, prairies and beaches, an ideal location to reintroduce condors. Rugged, empty coastline and the barren mountaintop meadows on the north coast provide vast soaring and foraging opportunities for the massive bird. Evidence indicates that condors nested on their high-country cliff faces and in ancient redwoods, which are still waiting for the condor to take up residence. An entire section of the tribe’s website is devoted to the Yurok Tribe Condor Program.
The Hoopa Valley Tribe—Leader in Fisher Conservation
The fisher—a relative of the wolverine and badger—has lived in the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s ancestral land in northern California for thousands of years. As their declining populations made them a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, the Hoopa Tribal Wildlife Department created a fisher program to help determine why their numbers were dropping.
To save the spiritually revered forest dweller, intensive research began with the first of three grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Between 1998 and 2005, Hoopa’s wildlife department documented a 75 percent reduction in fisher population density. Today the tribe’s study on fishers has become the single largest study of them in the western U.S., in terms of number of animals monitored and years of continuous study.
The tribe’s fisher study contributed to a deeper understanding of the habitat that fishers require for survival. It also exposed practices such as poisoning with anticoagulant rodenticide, used in illegal marijuana growing operations, that had been largely unaccounted for in association with fisher mortality. The tribe’s forestry management plan incorporated the results of the fisher study into its land management practices, from conserving trees that female fishers utilize to raise their young, to restoring large swaths of land used by male fishers in their search for food and mates. The Hoopa Valley Tribe is conserving and restoring fisher habitat both on their reservation and their ancestral lands as well.