The Prairie Blood Coulee meanders through property of the Kainai Nation, also known as the Blood Tribe, in southern Alberta.
On a warm fall day, a dozen people haul willows, mulch, dirt and water to several spots along a dry creek bed. Some drive big poles into the ground.
Blood Tribe technicians and volunteers from local environmental groups construct five analog beaver dams, which mimic a natural traffic jam. They hope to restore the stream’s flow to help the landowner care for his animals and have more water for wildlife as the area experiences a decade-long drought.
“Upstream where there are beavers, there is a lot of water. They are running out here and we have to help that ecosystem,” said Alvin First Rider, an environmental technician with Blood Tribe Land Management, as the crew was starting another day. work. “(Beavers) are ecological engineers like bison or fire. They are tools that people need not be afraid of. They have a bad reputation, but we have to learn to live with them.
“We live in a time of drought and climate change is only getting worse. We are trying to be proactive in installing them to help with climate resilience in the Kainai landscape.”
ADDRESSING CLIMATE CHANGE
This is one of the many ways First Nations are coping with climate change, which has resulted in extreme weather conditions that contribute not only to droughts, but also to flooding and wildfires across the Prairies.
The Kanai Ecosystem Protection Association, which includes Blood Tribe Land Management and the Blackfoot Confederacy, strives to create a healthy environment that balances sustainability, economy, and a traditional connection to air, water, to land and animals.
At its annual summit in September, the association showcased its water conservation efforts.
Participants learned about the work of the Blackfoot Confederacy to protect native bull trout and cutthroat trout on its four First Nations, heard about the importance of wetlands, and visited a site where willows were planted along the river.
On the last day of the summit, First Rider hiked to the edge of the Belly River, part of the Oldman Watershed, and pointed to the stem of a recently planted willow tree growing in the grass.
“For ceremonial use, willows are hard to come by,” he explained. “One of the things we’re trying to do is restore the willow populations here. That will also prevent erosion of the creek bank.”
More frequent and intense rainstorms that accompany climate change can cause more erosion and see more sediment flow into rivers and streams.
Shannon Frank, executive director of the Oldman Watershed Council, said the nonprofit helps the Kainai Nation, as well as neighboring Piikani Nation, with water-related projects.
“Both nations have done a great job, so we want to support them and make sure they have the resources and the tools they need,” she said.
Frank, who was given a traditional Pied-noir name meaning “woman who sings water” at the summit, said partnerships with Indigenous communities are an important part of reconciliation.
“It’s not just about the watershed and the water – it’s about restoring the culture,” she said. “The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) culture is directly linked to land and water. So, by restoring the watershed, we are actually helping to restore the culture.
Watershed councils across the Prairies have become an effective mechanism for local planning for climate change adaptation and water protection, according to a 2021 report led by Natural Resources Canada.
The report notes that some of these groups in Saskatchewan have branched out to include drought and flooding in addition to water quality issues. In Alberta, the report indicates that nonprofit organizations report on watershed health, lead collaborative planning, and facilitate education and stewardship activities.
Frank said there was a lot to learn from the Aboriginal community.
“It’s a sustainable culture,” she said. “It’s always been a sustainable culture.”
Kansie Fox, environmental steward at Blood Tribe Land Management, said Kainai’s projects stem from engagement with the community, including its youth and elders.
“There’s a lot of concern, especially around species and plants that are disappearing – those culturally important species that are needed on a daily basis,” she said, referring to the sweetgrass and willow trees regularly used in traditional ceremonies.
There are several sites where willows are replanted, similar to the site along the Belly River.
In addition to stabilizing the shore, First Rider said willows can create better habitat for fish by shading the water and keeping it cool for native trout, providing food for beavers and becoming habitat for birds. breeders.
“They are very important for the ecosystem.”
bring back the bison
Likewise, more than 40 First Nations and tribes across Canada and the United States have signed a bison treaty to bring back bison – or buffalo, as Indigenous peoples traditionally call them – as a way to connect with their history. and restore an ecological balance.
In Kainai, First Rider said bison could help protect native grasslands.
“At one time it was considered the largest intact remnant of prairie,” he said. “It’s slowly being disrupted. We’re trying to create that awareness in this push to protect that little bit of grassland that’s left.”
The bison reintroduction is accompanied by an assessment of birds, soil and insects.
“We are looking at the dung beetle population,” he explained. “The burrowing owl will look for dung.
“Historically, burrowing owls were around in the late 90s, 2000s. We hope they eventually come back.”
Fox said the Nation is also trying to protect culturally significant animals such as wolves and bears, which have been affected by climate change, before it’s too late.
In 2017, a wildfire swept through Waterton Lakes National Park, about an hour’s drive southwest.
“When that happened, there was an influx of wolves and wolverines,” Fox said. “The data shows…they’re using this place almost as a refuge. So keeping this habitat healthy is something we’re working towards to deal with the challenges that come with climate change.”
Their work, she said, attempts to balance Western science with available traditional knowledge.
“A lot of knowledge is hard to come by,” Fox said. “Much of it was lost during colonization and residential schools.”
She said part of the project funding is used to gather traditional knowledge, find a way to document it, and then pass that knowledge on to future generations.
“It’s important to get this Western science to make sure we’re doing things consistently,” Fox said, “but also respecting the knowledge that the earth holds, that these species hold, that our elders hold.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 23, 2022.