A pickup truck drives along a gravel road in front of badlands formations in southwestern South Dakota. (Makenzie Huber/South Dakota Searchlight)
Steam rose from snow puddles hours after melting across southwestern South Dakota over Easter weekend.
Deer are changing their migration patterns because of drought; magpies have nearly disappeared from the prairie, Native American elders observe.
This is the shifting landscape of the Rosebud Reservation, home of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, or the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
Scientists with the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center in Colorado partnered with the tribe for a multi-year study of how the reservation’s environment will change in the next century.
The changes threaten the tribe’s economy, such as ranching cattle and bison, and tribal members’ lives with worsening storms like the December 2022 storms that killed six people, including a 12-year-old child. The changes prompted the tribe and scientists to create a Climate Adaptation Plan, which was released in 2022 and will be implemented beginning this year.
The plan urges the tribe to expand food sovereignty and local processing facilities, promote habitat conservation, plant trees and native plants, and build a climate center, among other recommendations.
“Each generation born is responsible for the next seven generations,” said Phil Two Eagle, executive director of the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council and leader of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe climate change working group. “The Lakota concept of a generation is 72 years, so if you multiply that by seven that’s 504 years we are responsible for today.”
What do scientists predict will happen?
The Rosebud Sioux Tribe was awarded a nearly $1.7 million federal grant in 2022 to implement the adaptation report and build the Sicangu Climate Center. The center will track environmental changes and store data. Tribal leaders expect it’ll be operational within five years.
But already, preliminary findings highlight the urgency to act, Two Eagle said.
The region is seeing a steeper increase in precipitation than the rest of the world, yet hotter temperatures and worsening droughts in the summer with higher potential of wildfires.
In the last 30 years, only six years saw annual precipitation totals less than the 20th century average on the reservation, said Robin O’Malley, retired director of the North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center who worked on the report, during a webinar presentation.
That’s leading to the steam rising from puddles, or evapotranspiration, which is when moisture is evaporated from the ground and air. It’s happening “to a degree not seen before,” O’Malley said, and it’s leading to wet springs and falls but dry summers.
“The notion of drought just being a lack of water is no longer how we think about it,” O’Malley said. “It’s a combination of lack of water at higher temperatures and lower relative humidity that actively sucks water out of the air.”
Precipitation changes will change what grows in the area, O’Malley added. The report suggests the grassland will shift to a shrub-covered landscape, which will affect not only what grows in the area but what livestock and wildlife can survive.
Protecting the Oyate
Once the climate center is operational, that’ll give Rosebud Sioux “bulletproof” and “court-quality” data to defend their rights as a sovereign nation and gain partnerships, O’Malley said, including water right claims.
“We’ve seen people come after the resources the tribes have before and take them away, so they need to be watchful of that,” he added.
The report highlights the risk to communities and Indigenous culture and knowledge. Paula Antoine, director of the Sicangu Oyate Land Office, is encouraging tribal members to forage and harvest native plants, such as sage, to encourage growth. Such plants and medicine central to Lakota culture must be protected and their importance documented, she said.
The tribe has also been in the process of planting thousands of trees in the last few years, following a series of 2012 fires that burned over 45,000 acres of forested land in the southwestern part of the reservation.
Proposals in the report include ensuring all homes have reliable sources of heating and cooling, improving substandard housing and considering rooftop solar energy. It also encourages the tribe to strengthen food sovereignty and produce energy in the community to sustain its own grid — “produce what we consume,” according to Two Eagle.
“We’re thinking about the survival of our people, protecting our lives and property — our homes, our land, our water, our resources,” he said.
While the Rosebud Sioux Tribe is the first tribal nation in the northern great plains to create a climate adaptation plan, the tribe plans to share its knowledge with other tribes in South Dakota and other governmental entities, Antoine said.
“Just because we have a reservation boundary or a state or county boundary, doesn’t mean climate change is going to stop there,” Antoine said. “We need to work together and combine our efforts to help the people of our region and help our neighbors.”
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