Can We Keep Salmon in the Nooksack?: Mapping Columbia River Basin Tribal Adaptation Capacity

Fishing for Chinook

A member of the Yakama Tribe uses a dip net to fish for Fall Chinook salmon in the Klickitat River, a tributary of the Columbia. (Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service- Pacific Region.)


The mighty Columbia River drains 166,400,000 acres as it flows from the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia to the Pacific coast of Oregon and Washington. For generations it has provided critical habitat for many species of fish, wildlife, and plants that Tribes refer to as “first foods.” First foods are central to the indigenous way of life, vital not only for subsistence, but also for spiritual and ceremonial practices. Now, as temperatures warm and precipitation patterns shift, even the powerful Columbia is subject to the impacts of climate change, threatening the sustainability of first foods. Because the resources that sustain Tribes are vulnerable to climate change, native communities are among the most climate-sensitive communities in the Northwest.

This reality requires that we ask a serious question: Are Tribes in the Columbia River Basin ready to address the challenges of climate change? As a step toward answering this, the Northwest Climate Science Center (NW CSC) funded Don Sampson and the Tribal Leadership Forum to undertake an assessment of the climate change capacity of 15 Tribes and 3 intertribal organizations in the Columbia River Basin. Sampson is the Executive Director of the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University’s Hatfield School of Government. In the past, he also served as Executive Director of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Executive Director of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC). His findings were published last fall in a report titled “Columbia River Basin Tribes Climate Change Capacity Assessment.”

Sampson found that tribal management and policy leaders have relatively moderate levels of awareness of climate impacts and planning methods while tribal citizens have slightly lower awareness. Perhaps not surprisingly, policy priorities reflect these levels of awareness: fewer than half of the tribes assessed are currently engaged in federal, state, tribal or local government agency climate change planning efforts.

Sampson’s report identified an increase in dedicated staff as one key way for Tribes to build climate capacity. Many Tribes have staff with scientific expertise, but for various reasons, these staff do not currently focus their efforts on issues related to climate change. Sampson’s study also identified a need for downscaled climate and hydrology data specific to particular tribal needs, such as low stream flows and their potential impacts on first foods.

For the NW CSC, a key goal in supporting Sampson’s assessment was to help provide a roadmap toward adaptation for Tribes. According to Gustavo Bisbal, Director of the NW CSC, “The key here is not just to ask what services and tools we can provide to Tribes to build climate resilience, but to try to stimulate how tribes can learn from one another as to how to best address the realities associated with a changing climate.” The goal is to develop a close working relationship between Tribes and climate research groups so that there is co-production of knowledge, leading to ownership by both the user and the producer.

Based on recommendations from Sampson’s report, the NW CSC, in partnership with the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative, commissioned work by climate experts at the University of Washington to make the climate vulnerability assessment process more accessible to tribal staff by providing online guidance materials. They will also staff a Climate Technical Support Help Desk to provide rapid response to questions and consult a Tribal Advisory Committee to ensure that their work is useful for Tribes throughout the Northwest.