Sustainable Climate Change Adaptation in Indian Country

Limited land and resource rights allocated to indigenous peoples in the United States create structural barriers that restrict many tribes’ ability to sustainably manage natural resources and adapt to climate change. This article reviews these barriers, and how land fragmentation and policies that hinder a tribe’s authority and control of natural resources restrict their capacity to manage climate change risks. After describing the history of political barriers for tribes, the report is primarily a case study of water rights and management at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. 

Significant challenges to the adaptive capacity of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes of the Wind River Reservation have been based in the Big Horn stream adjudication rulings which failed to award full groundwater rights to the tribes, limited the quantity of settled tribal water rights, and tied those water rights to agriculture only. While the 1989 Wyoming adjudication was the first time that a state court had quantified tribal reserved water rights, the court refused to allow non-agricultural uses for water - for example, for habitat restoration or for domestic use. These rulings undermine other social, cultural, spiritual, and economic uses of the tribes’ water resources and restrict flexible management required for adaptation, especially in a region facing worsening drought.

The article summarizes ways in which, despite maladaptive water laws and other structural barriers faced by tribes, the Wind River Reservation tribes are building their capacity to address climate risks, especially drought, through partnerships with universities and government agencies. 

A number of more recently developed climate adaptation programs are highlighted that include particular consideration for tribes, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Tribal Climate Resilience Program that provides funding for tribes to prepare for climate change. Also the Department of Interior’s Climate Adaptation Science Centers and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, which are mandated to support tribes and incorporate traditional ecological knowledge into science initiatives where possible.  


Publication Date: July 2017

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