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American Indians have unique vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change because of the links among ecosystems, cultural practices, and public health, but also as a result of limited resources available to address infrastructure needs. On the Crow Reservation in south-central Montana, a Northern Plains American Indian Reservation, there are community concerns about the consequences of climate change impacts for community health and local ecosystems. Observations made by Tribal Elders about decreasing annual snowfall and milder winter temperatures over the 20(th) century initiated an investigation of local climate and hydrologic data by the Tribal College. The resulting analysis of meteorological data confirmed the decline in annual snowfall and an increase in frost free days. In addition, the data show a shift in precipitation from winter to early spring and a significant increase in days exceeding 90° F (32° C). Streamflow data show a long-term trend of declining discharge. Elders noted that the changes are affecting fish distribution within local streams and plant species which provide subsistence foods. Concerns about warmer summer temperatures also include heat exposure during outdoor ceremonies that involve days of fasting without food or water. Additional community concerns about the effects of climate change include increasing flood frequency and fire severity, as well as declining water quality. The authors call for local research to understand and document current effects and project future impacts as a basis for planning adaptive strategies.
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Exploring effects of climate change on Northern Plains
American Indian health
John T. Doyle &Margaret Hiza Redsteer &
Margaret J. Eggers
Received: 27 January 2013 /Accepted: 18 May 2013
#U.S. Government 2013
Abstract American Indians have unique vulnerabilities to the impacts of climate change because
of the links among ecosystems, cultural practices, and public health, but also as a result of limited
resources available to address infrastructure needs.OntheCrowReservationinsouth-central
Montana, a Northern Plains American Indian Reservation, there are community concerns about
the consequences of climate change impacts for community health and local ecosystems.
Observations made by Tribal Elders about decreasing annual snowfall and milder winter temper-
atures over the 20th century initiated an investigation of local climate and hydrologic data by the
Tribal College. The resulting analysis of meteorological data confirmed the decline in annual
Climatic Change
DOI 10.1007/s10584-013-0799-z
This article is part of a Special Issue on Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples in the United States: Impacts,
Experiences, and Actionsedited by Julie Koppel Maldonado, Rajul E. Pandya, and Benedict J. Colombi.
Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s10584-013-0799-z)
contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
J. T. Doyle (*)
Crow Water Quality Project, Little Big Horn College, 8645 S. Weaver Drive, Crow Agency, MT, USA
e-mail: johndoyle91@gmail.com
J. T. Doyle
Apsaalooke Water and Wastewater Authority, Crow Agency, MT, USA
J. T. Doyle
Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee, Crow Agency, MT, USA
J. T. Doyle :M. H. Redsteer
Crow Tribal member, Crow Reservation, MT, USA
M. H. Redsteer
US Geological Survey Flagstaff Science Campus, Flagstaff, AZ, USA
e-mail: mhiza@usgs.gov
M. J. Eggers
Little Big Horn College, 8645 S. Weaver Drive, Crow Agency, MT 59022, USA
e-mail: eggersm@lbhc.edu
M. J. Eggers
Microbiology Department/CBE, Montana State University Bozeman, PO Box 173980, Bozeman, MT, USA
snowfall and an increase in frost free days. In addition, the data show a shift in precipitation from
winter to early spring. The number of days exceeding 90 ˚F(32˚C) has doubled in the past
century. Streamflow data show a long-term trend of declining discharge. Elders noted that the
changes are affecting fish distribution within local streams and plant species which provide
subsistence foods. Concerns about warmer summer temperatures also include heat exposure
during outdoor ceremonies that involve days of fasting without food or water. Additional
community concerns about the effects of climate change include increasing flood frequency
and fire severity, as well as declining water quality. The authors call for local research to
understand and document current effects and project future impacts as a basis for planning
adaptive strategies.
1 Introduction
Climate change impacts present distinct risks to human health throughout Indian country.
Although documented in Alaska (Brubaker et al. 2011a) and the Southwest (Redsteer et al.
2013a,b; Redsteer et al. 2010), these issues are not as well researched for Northern Plains
Tribal communities. To address this data gap, observations of Crow Tribal elders in addition
to changes in monitored temperature, precipitation and streamflow in the Little Bighorn
River valley, Montana are provided. Located in south central Montana, the Crow Reserva-
tion encompasses 2.3 million acres, including three mountain ranges and three large river
valleys. Approximately 8,000 of the 11,000+ Tribal members reside on the Reservation,
primarily along the rivers and creeks. The majority of communities, including the capital
town of Crow Agency, are situated in the Little Bighorn River valley (Fig. 1). The Crow
language is still widely spoken and many cultural traditions continue to be practiced today.
Water is one of the most important natural resources to the Crow community and has always
Fig. 1 Map delineating Crow Reservation (in yellow) and proximity to Hardin, MT where meteorological
data for the study was collected, 15 miles northwest of Crow Agency, MT. The Reservation is southeast of
Billings, MT, with the Reservations southern border on the Montana-Wyoming State boundary. (Map
prepared by Eggers; inset courtesy US Department of Agriculture 2013)
Climatic Change
been held in high respect among Tribal members. River and spring waters are still used in
many ceremonies (Knows His Gun McCormick et al. 2012).
The observations of local climate changes arethose made byfirst author John Doyle, a Tribal
Elder, and reflect experiences he and his peers have had over a span of many years. Addition-
ally, other Elders shared their observations with Doyle for this article,
1
or contributed to
discussions at meetings of the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee (Cummins et
al. 2010a,b). To compare and integrate the changes observed by the community with existing
monitoring data, analyses were conducted of the local National Weather Service records as well
as the US Geological Survey discharge data for the Little Bighorn River. Local knowledge and
these physical measurements were in agreement, and provided complementary insights. This
process has triggered further community discussions about potential impacts on water quality,
forest and rangeland resources, subsistence foods and public health. Challenges facing these
communities are broad in scope and demonstrate the need for vulnerability assessments and
planning to reduce current and future climate-related health impacts.
2 Crow elder observations
Community Elders have observed long-term changes in the local climate, including declining
winter snowfall, milder winters and warmer summers. Elders from all Districts of the Reser-
vation remember that the ground used to be covered in deep snow and stayed frozen from
November to Marchwhile today the prairies are bare grass for much of the winter (S Young, J
Doyle, personal communication, 2007; D Small, MA LaForge, K Red Star, D Yarlott, UJ Bear
Dont Walk, personal communications, 2013). Sometimes the snow was so deep that it was a
real struggle to feed cattle (D Small, personal communication, 2013). Children could ice skate
throughout the winter; now winter days are often above freezing (S Young, personal commu-
nication, 2012). Even Tribal members in their thirties note that winters are not as cold as when
they were children (W Red Star, V Buffalo, personal communications, 2013). Every spring,
massive ice jams on the Little Bighorn River used to break up and scour out the river bottom
and banks; today the ice is thin by early spring and what remains melts quietly away (J Doyle,
personal communication, 2012). A locally important mountain spring, visited repeatedly over
the years, has been steadily moving downslope, causing concern that the water table has been
dropping due to reduced snowfall (J Doyle, personal communication, 2013).
Elders note that climate changes are affecting subsistence food plants, especially berries.
(See also Lynn et al. 2013). Many species of berries have long been gathered as staple foods,
including juneberries, chokecherries, elderberries and buffalo berries. Now these shrubs and
trees sometimes bud out sufficiently early in the spring that they are vulnerable to subse-
quent cold snaps that kill the blossoms, so they never fruit. In years that shrubs bear fruit, the
timing has changed: chokecherries used to ripen after the juneberries, and now they ripen at
the same time (V Buffalo, personal communication, 2013). Elderberries in the mountains
now ripen in July instead of in August (J Doyle, personal communication, 2013). Buffalo
berries were traditionally harvested after the first frost, as freezing sweetened the berries.
Now buffalo berries are dried out before the first frost hits, so are no longer worth gathering
(L Medicine Horse, personal communication, 2013). Additionally, some trees now come out
of dormancy during mid-winter warm spells, and die when the temperature drops below
freezing again. Similar trends in the phenology of lilacs and honeysuckle have been
1
The eight named Tribal Elders and two younger Tribal members who provided comments specifically for
this article all agreed to the use of their names.
Climatic Change
observed by the Western Regional Phenological Network: spring bloom dates in the 1980s
1990s were 5 to 10 days earlier than they were in the 1960s1970s. This shift is attributed to
warming spring temperatures in western North America by 2° to 5 °F (1°3 °C) during the
period of observation (Cayan et al. 2001).
Ceremonial practices are being affected by high temperatures. In May and June,
sundances are held; these are three- or four-day outdoor events during which the participants
fast, dance and pray. One older sundance chief, who for decades has led this ceremony near
Crow Agency every Fathers Day weekend, notes that the June weather has gotten progres-
sively hotter and therefore the sundance has become increasingly difficult for fasting
participants. He remarked that the cattails, which community members bring to participants
for relief from the heat, used to average 6 ft in length, and are now only about 3 ft long (L
Medicine Horse, personal communication, 2013). Cattail (Typha latifolia) vigor, including
both root and shoot biomass, has been found to decline with increasing soil dryness
(Asamoah and Bork 2010). Other traditional sundancers have concurred that dancing has
become tougher with progressively hotter summer weather (L Kindness and anonymous
Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee member, personal communications, 2013).
The river ecosystems appear to be warming in parallel with surface temperatures, as has been
documented both nationally and globally (NCADAC 2013). Reduced stream flows and warmer
summers, in addition to increased agricultural non-point source pollution, is affecting the Little
Bighorn River. Apparent impacts to fish and other aquatic species include changes in brown trout
location, a species that prefers cooler waters. Although these trout used to be found at the
tributary mouth of the Little Bighorn River, near Hardin, they are now more than 35 miles
upstream (A Birdinground, personal communication, 2010). Recently, bass have been observed
in the lower Little Bighorn River, where they never lived before. Catfish with skin lesions have
been caught. Freshwater mussel and frog populations have declined. These observations, along
with knowledge of river contamination, have caused some families to give up subsistence fishing
(J Doyle, personal communication, 2010). Others note declining fish populations, and believe
the changes in climate are a contributing factor (V Buffalo, personal communication, 2013).
3 Confirmation of Eldersobservations of recent climate change using monitoring data
The Eldersobservations discussed in the previous section were compared to climate and
hydrologic data available for the Crow Reservation and vicinity, as well as published regional
climate trend information. While observational data are perhaps more subjective and less
quantitative than monitored precipitation and streamflow, they have the potential to contribute
greatly to understanding what ecosystem changes may be occurring as a result of multiple
stressors, including climate change. They also provide information in regions where data are
limited. The Reservation is part of the ancestral homelands of the Crow people, and so existing
relationships with and uses of plants, game and water resources go back many generations.
Parallel observations by Elders from all the Districts of the Reservation, such as of declining
snowfall, provide multiple data points and are invaluable in the absence of SnoTel sites on the
Reservation. Their observations are also particularly relevant to daily life, illuminating for
instance how climate change is impacting food supply, cultural activities and human health.
Climate and hydrologic analyses were focused on the Little Bighorn River valley of the
Crow Reservation, which includes the majority of the Reservations population. Stream flow
records for the Little Bighorn River were used because it flows north through the entire
Reservation, passing through Crow Agency, before joining the Bighorn River at Hardin
(Fig. 1). Weather station data were selected based on station history, completeness and
Climatic Change
appropriateness of records that would elucidate local changes to the Little Bighorn River
valley near Crow Agency, Montana.
Hardin and Crow Agency weather station data were combined in this evaluation in order
to provide a more complete history of changes that have occurred over the longest period of
time (National Climate Data Center 2013). These data were supplemented by information on
trends in precipitation and temperature from Montanas Climate Division 5 (MT CD5),
which covers south-central Montana, including all of the Crow Reservation as well as
counties to the west and north (Supplement Documents Iand II). Other available weather
data relevant to the Crow Reservation are limited. There are no other weather stations within
the Little Bighorn River valley with sufficiently complete data to be worth analyzing, nor in
nearby river valleys within 75 km of Crow Agency, Montana (Supplement Table I). Crow
Agency data collection began operation in 1897, has reasonably complete data and is in a
small rural community that has had no urban growth (0 %). However, the Crow Agency
weather station was discontinued more than 20 years ago, limiting the usefulness of its data
for an analysis of recent changes. Hardin, located 15 miles northwest of Crow Agency,
began collecting data in 1909. Although the early record is missing much of the 1920s and
1930s, it has a nearly complete record of precipitation, temperature and snowfall from July
1948 to today (March 2013). The town of Hardin has had a negligible urban growth rate
(2 %) over the past 75 years, hence urban growth is highly unlikely to have had a substantial
impact on the weather data. The site is in an agricultural valley in the NOAAs Climate
Division 5, south-central Montana. This weather station is 2905(881 m) above sea level,
and is located on the alluvial plain of the Bighorn River (Fig. 1).
Seasonal temperature variations in the Little Bighorn River valley are extreme, consisting
of bitterly cold winters and very hot summers. These variations are reflected in the station
data that show temperatures vary from 40 °F (40 °C) in January and February, to above
100 °F (38 °C) in July and August, with an annual mean of 48.3 °F (9.1 °C). The number of
days per year exceeding marked temperature thresholds has increased substantially from
1897 to 2012 (Fig. 2). The number of days per year exceeding 100 °F is highly variable. The
Fig. 2 Number of days per year with temperature exceeding 90 ˚F(32˚C) has doubled in the past century in
Hardin and Crow Agency, MT. Data from National Weather Service daily records (National Climate Data Center).
The red line indicates a linear trend of increasing high temperatures based on the data. (A dip in temperature in the
early 1990s corresponds to a cold period produced by the volcanic ash from eruption of Mt Pinatubo.)
Climatic Change
decadal-average number of days per year exceeding 100 °F has doubled from 19001909 to
20002009 (Supplement Table II). The increase in high temperatures recorded does not
coincide with any changes made to weather station operation, but is consistent with trends in
increasing temperatures for Montana Climate Division 5 (CD5) (National Climate Data
Center). Montana CD5 data show average monthly temperatures over the past 110+ years
have been steadily warming for the summer months of June through September, by 0.1° to
0.2 °F per decade (Supplement Document I). The warming trend observed in monitoring
data supports the accounts and observations of the Crow Tribal sundancers.
Additional warming trends in winter temperatures are readily apparent in the number of
frost-free days (days exceeding 32 °F), which has increased by about 7.2 days per decade
(Fig. 3). In the 1950s there were on average 178 frost-free days per year, whereas since 2000
there have been 213 such days. The number of frost-free days per year has important
implications for ecosystems because cold winters are responsible for killing off pests, such
as bark beetles (Evangelista et al. 2011). As warm season weather extends in length, pests
can have more than one reproductive cycle, further increasing their numbers.
This increase in number of frost-free days is consistent with Montana CD5 data showing
that over the past 110+ years, average temperatures for the months of January through March
have been steadily increasing (by 0.2 °F, 0.4 °F and 0.5 °F per decade respectively)
(Supplement Document I). Eldersaccounts that they used to be able to ice skate all winter
long as children, and that the river ice was once much thicker in wintertime is consistent with
these trends in cold temperatures observed in monitoring data.
Overall, Hardins average temperature has increased from a mean of 45.6 °F in the 1950s
to 50.1 °F since 2000. Average temperatures from the Crow Agency weather station records
are nearly identical to the Hardin data for the years that collection occurred at both sites
(Supplement Figure I).
These increases in average annual temperature and in the number of hot summer days and
frost-free winter days, demonstrates that the climate changes projected by the draft National
Climate Assessment (NCA) for the Northern Great Plains are already underway (National
Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee (NCADAC) 2013).
Fig. 3 Number of frost free days per year in Hardin, MT, calculated from historic daily observations. (Data
source: National Climate Data Center.)
Climatic Change
As temperatures warm, snowfall is likely to decrease because atmospheric temperatures are
warm enough for precipitation to fall in a liquid rather than frozen state for a longer period
during the year. Snowfall has decreased significantly in the region surrounding Hardin (Fig. 4).
A similar trend in reduced snowpack has been documented for the Northern Great Plains in
general, and for other parts of the western U.S. over the past half century (NCADAC 2013). For
Montana CD5, including the Crow Reservation, winter precipitation (December through
March) has been declining on average 0.05per decade since 1895 (Supplement Document
II). This regional trend has serious implications for local ecosystems, local temperature trends,
recharge of aquifers and summer runoff in local streams and river systems, and hence also for
Crow Agency, whose municipal water source is the Little Bighorn River. Snow covers the
surface with highly reflective water crystals that help keep the surface cool by reflecting the
suns heat back into the atmosphere. Snow melts slowly, and as a result, the moisture delivered
as snow infiltrates the substrate more effectively than rain. Also, mountain snowpack melts
slowly during spring and summer, reducing the likelihood of flooding and providing riparian
areas and communities with a constant fresh water supply during the hot summer months when
water is needed most. The decline in winter snow pack is not being made up during other
seasons; average annual precipitation in MT CD5 has been declining by 0.11 per decade
(Supplement Document II).
The Eldersobservations of decreased annual snowfall is confirmed by the research of Stewart
et al. (2005) that showed a trend towards an earlier onset of the spring runoff peak throughout
western North America. In addition, the Eldersobservations were confirmed by an analysis of
streamflow data for the Little Bighorn River. The USGS gaging station 06289000 on the Little
Bighorn River at State line near Wyola, Montana, measures discharge from a drainage area of
193 square miles in the Big Horn Mountains. The station is located where the river leaves the Big
Fig. 4 Plot showing annual snowfall in millimeters from Hardin MT (19122012) and Crow Agency MT
(18951990) observation sites, calculated in water years. The trendline is calculated from the average of
measurements when both locations had measurements, and on the single sites measurements when only one
station was operating. Years with more than 1 month of missing data were deleted from data plot, except for
the earliest records. (Data source: National Climate Data Center.)
Climatic Change
Horn Mountains and enters the valley floor, documenting flow before any significant withdrawals
for agriculture or municipal uses. The river is a critical water source because it provides the
municipal water source for Crow Agency and because the majority of the Tribes population lives
in the river valley. A US Geological Survey study of the Valleys groundwater resources found
that the water in the Quaternary alluvium had a median total dissolved solids (TDS) concentration
of 1,450 mg/L, while the median TDS concentration in the Judith River Formation was
1,000 mg/L (Tuck 2003). The EPA Secondary Standard for TDS is 500 mg/L, hence these levels
are considered objectionable for municipal drinking water (EPA 2013). Neither aquifer provides a
viable alternative water supply for Crow Agencys municipal use.
To reduce the noisefrom interannual variability in the spring runoff hydrographs, decadal
averages of discharge for each day during May and June were calculated for the available data
for the Little Bighorn River gaging station (06289000). The 1980s and 2000s had the earliest
spring runoff peak of all decades on record (Supplement Figure II)(USGS2012).
Decadal averages of monthly mean daily discharge from 1940 to 2009 were similarly
calculated. Plotting these data show that the 1980s and 2000s had not only the earliest but also
the lowest spring runoff of all decades on record (Fig. 5). If this pattern continues, it would be in
agreement with research documenting the effects of warmer temperatures on decreased
streamflow (Pederson et al. 2010;McCabeandClark2005).
Recent devastating spring floods of the town of Crow Agency in 2007 and 2011 warrant
examination of flood history to see if their frequency is increasing. The data show that the mean
daily discharge for May 2007 was more than 100 cfs higher than any other May on record for
the previous 70 years of streamflow data (Supplement Figure III). The USGS data document the
well-remembered epicJune 1978 flood, when the nearest gauging station on the Little Big
Horn River (close to Hardin), set an all-time record of 11.78 ft, which was 3.78 ft above flood
stage. The devastating 2011 flood, in which more than 200 homes were damaged, set a new
gauging station record of 12.32 ft (Olp 2011; Thackeray 2011) (Supplement Figure IV). Local
oral history tells of a similarly major flood in the 1920s (Doyle, personal communication, 2012,
citing Alice Yarlott Other Medicine). Note that high mean daily discharge of the Little Bighorn
Fig. 5 Monthly averages of daily mean discharge by decade for Little Bighorn River at State Line near
Wyola, Montana (station 06289000). (Data source: USGS 2012)
Climatic Change
River at State Line near Wyola, Montana (at station 06289000) for the month of June has not
always resulted in flooding of Crow Agency. Over the past century, the town of Crow Agency
has experienced severe floods about every 40 to 50 years, but the unusual early season flood in
May 2007, followed closely by a moredamaging flood in 2011, has raised community concerns
about increased flood frequency and severity. Trends in CD5 data show a shift in precipitation
from winter months to the spring (increasing in April). These trends may also contribute to the
probability of spring floods.
The physical data sets available, the descriptions of climate and ecosystem change by Elders,
and recent flooding and fire events on the Reservation are almost all in accordance with
descriptions of current and predicted climate impacts described in the draft National Climate
Assessment (NCA) in the chapters on the Great Plains, Native Lands and Resources, and Water
Resources (NCADAC 2013). The additional information contributed by Crow Tribal Elders
provides a better understanding of climate impacts and phenological changes experienced by
the community, compared to what can only be cautiously surmised from the monitored climate
and stream discharge data. These local data are an essential complement to regional predictions,
especially when evaluating local ecosystem change and vulnerable communities (e.g. Patz and
Olson 2006). The draft NCAs prediction of increased annual precipitation for the Northern
Great Plains is contradicted by both the local mountain stream discharge data and the MT CD5
data. The MT CD5 data document an absolute long-term regional decline in annual precipita-
tion for south-central Montana.
4 Anticipated vulnerabilities for the Crow community and local ecosystems
The Apsaalooke [Crow] Water and Wastewater Authority (the Authority), which works with
the Reservation communities of Crow Agency, Wyola and Pryor on their municipal water and
wastewater systems, is particularly concerned about the effects of the apparently declining
streamflow, increased agricultural demand and more frequent spring flooding on drinking water
availability, water quality and community health. As the Little Bighorn River is the source water
for the municipal water treatment plant supplying Crow Agency and the regional Indian Health
Service Hospital, and low flows in August already strain the ability of the plant to obtain
sufficient water to supply the town, further decreases in streamflow from reduced snowfall
could be challenging. The monthly averages of daily mean discharge for the months of June and
July were the lowest on record for the 2000s and 1980s (Fig. 5). The demand from agriculture
for water for irrigation is already increasing (J. Doyle, personal communication, 2012). Clearly,
running out of municipal drinking water for the town and the hospital would have deleterious
health impacts.
Research conducted by Little Big Horn College (LBHC) and the Crow Environmental Health
Steering Committee, with partners from Montana State University Bozeman and the University
of New England, has already found substantial microbial contamination of local rivers during
spring and summer months. For instance, E. coli levels in the Little Bighorn River exceeded
1,200 colony forming units (CFU)/100 mL during spring 2007 (Ford et al. 2012); surface waters
with an E. coli geometric mean exceeding 126 CFU/100 mL are considered unsafe for
swimming (EPA 2012). Testing initiated by the Crow Agency Water Treatment plant, and
conducted at an EPA-certified lab, showed that the E. coli concentration in their Little Bighorn
River source water exceeded 7,100 CFU/100 mL during spring runoff in 2009 (Bright Wings
2009, cited in Connolly et al. 2010). The documented E. coli concentrations mean that under the
EPAs Long-Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, the Treatment Plant falls into Bin
4,the highest risk category for Cryptosporidium in the source water. Cryptosporidium is a
Climatic Change
protozoan pathogen, which in its oocyst form can survive in the environment for months, and is
highly resistant to chlorination (US EPA 2001). The infective dose for humans is low, and an
infection can be fatal for immune-compromised individuals (US EPA 2001). Cryptosporidium
has contaminated public water systems elsewhere in the US, especially after heavy precipitation
coinciding with spring snow melt (Patz and Olson 2006). Hence, the Crow Agency Water
Treatment Plant is required to meet additional treatment requirements for Cryptosporidium
removal by October 1, 2014 (Connolly et al. 2010). The Tribes limited operations and
maintenance budget for water treatment strongly constrains technology choices. More frequent
spring flooding will only exacerbate these municipal water treatment challenges.
Spring flooding incurs multiple health risks to community members. During the 1978 flood,
the sewer clogged and sewage backed up into homes (Thackeray 2011). In 2011, the flood
washed wastewater from the Lodge Grass lagoon into the Little Bighorn River, which in turn
inundated downstream homes and businesses. Twenty-two homes were destroyed and over 200
were damaged (Olp 2011). There was an increase in complaints about water damage to homes
leading to mold infestation (M Eggers, personal communication, 2011). Molds release irritants
and allergens, and can cause asthma attacks in some asthmatics (EPA 2010). Many peoples
wells were flooded; the Tribes Environmental Protection Department subsequently shock
chlorinated many of these wells but could not reach everyone affected. The Federal Emergency
Management Administrations Montana Disaster Declaration designated the Crow Reservation
as eligible for both Individual Assistance and Public Assistance (FEMA 2011). Experiencing
two severe floods within 5 years, there is community concern about the impacts of continued
increased flood frequency and severity, possibly driven by climate change.
The Authority, the Crow Tribe, Little Big Horn College and the local Indian Health Service
hospital, working together as the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee, with the
support of academic partner Montana State University Bozeman, are working on several
mitigation strategies to reduce waterborne microbial health risks (Cummins et al. 2010a,b;
Eggers et al. 2012). First, a low cost, high tech home water filtration system was pilot tested for
home use. This system is proving to successfully treat river water for microbial contamination
such as E. coli for only pennies a day, so it can be safely consumed. The filters could provide an
option for safer ceremonial consumption of river water, for families who found this culturally
acceptable. Second, EPA funding is being sought to work with local ranchers to reduce non-
point source pollution from livestock manure. Third, there are collaborations with other re-
searchers to better elucidate the health risks from microbial contamination of river water,
especially Cryptosporidium and E. coli. Finally, there are community education events and
partnerships with educators to expand water quality education in the schools.
Warmer summer temperatures are also affecting the Crow Agency municipal water supplys
distribution system, with implications for community health. During summer 2012, the soils in
Crow Agency became so dry and hard that soil surface impact more readily shattered the older,
underground concrete-asbestos drinking water lines. Until breaks are detected and repaired,
water lines are vulnerable to contamination, creating health risks for water consumers. This also
wastes precious water and increases infrastructure maintenance costs for an already financially
strained system. The Water Authority has successfully raised funds to upgrade the distribution
system and is replacing these old, fragile water lines.
The effects of decreased snowfall and warmer temperatures on forest health, wildfire
severity and hence also human health are another community concern. As mentioned above,
drier and warmer weather improve conditions for forest pests such as bark beetles, resulting in
more dead timber and greater fire risk (Voggesser et al. 2013). Across the state of Montana,
more than 1.2 million acres burned in 2012 (NOAA 2012)the most acreage burned in
recorded history, except for 1910 (Thackeray 2012).
Climatic Change
The 2012 Sarpy Creek, Bad Horse, Plum Creek fires and more on the Crow Reservation
resulted in the worst fire season in memory for the community. The fires wereeven worse onthe
adjoining Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where more than 60 % of their 445,000 acre
Reservation burned. Homes and livestock were lost; the town of Lame Deer was evacuated;
some areas were burned so badly the soil blistered, creating concern that the pastures and
wildlife forage would not recover. If so, ranching and subsistence deer and elk hunting, vital to
local families, could be impacted. There were days when the smoke was thick and heavy, but
there are no measurements of air quality, so people concerned about the health risks had no way
to assess the danger (J. Doyle, personal communication, 2013). This coming spring (2013),
erosion is expected to become an issue for both soil and water quality. The full extent of the
impacts of the 2012 fire season on land, water and human health are still unfolding.
5 Conclusion
Meteorological data from Hardin and Crow Agency, the USGS streamflow-gauging station on
the Little Bighorn River and MT CD5 exhibit trends predicted and observed to be the result of
the Earths average warming by 0.7 °C this last century due to the greenhouse effect, with one
exception: annual precipitation and apparently streamflow are declining, in contradiction to the
prediction for increased precipitation in the Northern Great Plains (NCADAC 2013). Obser-
vations from Tribal Elders and the small amount of meteorological data available are in
agreement. In addition, Elder observations suggest that the data trends are representative of
the Little Bighorn River valley. Further investigation of these trends is needed to provide an
account of when changes to ecosystems began, the magnitude of ecosystem changes that could
be occurring, and any underlying mechanisms and stressors that may contribute to observed
changes to plant and animal species.
The ecological effects of less snowfall, warmer temperatures, recently reduced streamflow,
increasing flood frequency and fire severity are already being experienced by Crow Tribal
members and other residents of Big Horn County. Additional research to understand and
document the full extent of the consequent human health impacts has yet to be conducted. A
Climate Change Health Assessment,to include the steps of scopingsurveyinganaly-
sisand planning,as was conducted in northwest Alaskan villages (Brubaker et al. 2011b)
would be invaluable. Such an assessment would be essential for the Crow Reservation
community to plan for mitigation of the impacts on water and subsistence food resources,
forest health, agriculture, ranching and community health. Other Northern Plains communities
are encouraged to examine their local climate data and consider and plan for current and future
impacts of climate change on their local ecosystems, water resources and public health.
While changes in climate and health impacts have been researched and documented for
Alaskan Native and Southwestern Tribal communities, much less has been published about
impacts on Tribes in the Northern Great Plains (NCADAC 2013). Recent publications
documenting how climate change is affecting snowmelt hydrology and streamflow timing in
the northern Rocky Mountains (Pederson et al. 2010;Hamletetal.2001), as well as the draft
National Climate Assessment (NCA) (NCADAC2013), suggest that Crow Reservation climate
changes and concerns might be relevant to other communities in the region. Additionally, as
local changes in climate shown in the NOAA record are not completely in agreement with the
changes projected for the Northern Great Plains by the draft NCA (NCADAC 2013), there is a
need for analyses at both local and regional scales. The addition of local data to regional
projections is resulting in more engaged community discussions and will provide a better basis
for community policy development and long range planning (Brubaker et al.2011b). Therefore,
Climatic Change
this article describes how the local weather and discharge data has been analyzed, and the
potential public health impacts, as an example that could be useful for other communities.
Acknowledgments Thank you to the many Crow Tribal members who contributed their personal observations of
changes to the Reservations climate, water resources and phenology over the recent decades, and particularly to Sara
Young, whose initial observations inspired this work. Anne Camper (Montana State University Bozeman), David
Anning (Arizona Water Science Center, US Geological Survey) and anonymous reviewers provided useful suggestions.
The work at Little Big Horn College was supported by a NSF Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improve-
ment grant; Center for Native Health PartnershipsGrant #P20MD002317 from NIHs National Institute of
Minority Health and Health Disparities; EPA STAR Research Assistance Agreement #FP91674401 and an EPA -
National Center for Environmental Research Grant # R833706. The content is solely the authorsresponsibility; it
has not been formally reviewed by the funders and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or
the EPA. The EPA does not endorse any of the products mentioned.
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Climatic Change
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