Forecasting the Climate Future

Part of NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System, a new weather station on the Flathead Reservation’s Bison Range will help the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe manage a fragile ecosystem

The new Bison Range weather station’s online dashboard provides real time data, along with periodically updated images of the surrounding prairie.

A new weather station on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ recently returned Bison Range will help monitor ongoing climate change and support research about the the prairie ecosystem. Funded by NOAA, it is part of what the University of Montana calls a  “cooperative statewide soil moisture and meteorological information system,” encompassing more than 100 monitoring stations across Montana.

The station, located on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, monitors soil moisture down to three feet, along with the more standard weather measurements such as rainfall, snow depth and temperature. In their Climate Change Strategic Plan, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribe outlined their interest in understanding better how to respond to the ongoing effects of climate change.

The station will feature interpretative signs and its data—tracked in real time on the Montana Mesonet Dashboard—will help to educate the public about local climate variability and its effects on ecosystems. The Bison Range is a destination for school groups, tourists, and student researchers from Salish Kootenai College.

 Tribal members Michael Pablo and Charles Allard established the bison herd on the Flathead Reservation range in 1870. The herd remains one of the few whose genes haven’t been diluted with cattle genes, which puts the bison in demand for breeding efforts by other tribal nations.

The weather monitoring station will help the tribes as they resumed control of the range, which had been under the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service for more than a century. In 1908, the federal government took over control of land that had been part of the Confederated Salish and Kooetenai Reservation as well as the bison when it established what was then called the National Bison Range. In December of 2020, Congress agreed to allow the 18,766 acres of the range transition back to the tribes.

“Our reunification with this specific buffalo herd means more to us than we can express,” Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Chairman Tom McDonald told the Flathead Beacon. “In addition to our wildlife management, the CSKT wants to ensure the story of our people is told at the Bison Range, which we believe will enhance the public experience and foster a better understanding of Indigenous people.”

The range abuts more than 1,000 acres of similar land the tribes have worked painstakingly to restore for the past 15 years, cleaning up failing irrigation waste ditches and repairing erosion damage from overgrazing. Now the restored wetlands attract trumpeter swans, pheasants, peregrine falcons, and native fish.

Along with the iconic buffalo, the Bison Range supports traditional plants such as blue camas and bitterroot flourish alongside hundreds of native bird species, large mammals, and aquatic species including bull trout. 

The Montana Climate Office’s director of climate extension, Kyle Bocinsky, presented at the 2022 National Indigenous and Tribal Climate Change conference about the benefits of expanding weather monitoring on tribal lands. As the blurb for his online session noted, “the limited availability of direct monitoring of climate drivers of droughts, wildfire smoke, and other hazards on reservation lands can put Native agriculture producers and community organizations at a disadvantage.”

“When NOAA’s National Integrated Drought Information System put out a call for proposals looking at drought resiliency on tribal land and, specifically, for implementing actions that are specified in drought or climate adaptation plans, it really was a perfect fit,” Bocinsky told the Flathead Beacon.

Bocinsky noted at the 2022 conference that his office handles maintenance of the stations, and also would take down any equipment if a tribal nation changes its mind about being part of the monitoring system. All stations are solar-powered, allowing for a sustainable system suited to remote locations. 

• • •

Story published July 26, 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *