Earth Day: Tribes host daylong celebration

Apr. 25—The Earth Day Celebration, held last Friday at Salish Kootenai College, brought together scientists, activists and tribal officials to celebrate accomplishments and explore the challenges that lie ahead in addressing climate change.

Mike Durglo Jr., climate coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, says CSKT was the third tribe in the United States to develop a strategic plan for addressing climate change in 2013. Described as "a living document," the plan continues to be updated "to reflect the priorities and achievements of the Tribes in relation to climate change."

Initiatives have included building a food sovereignty program that grows and distributes healthy food to tribal members; growing and restoring whitebark pine trees, a keystone species that protects watersheds, regulates snowmelt runoff and helps stabilize rocky and poorly developed soils; and engaging youngsters in an interdisciplinary program called Environmental Advocates for Global and Local Ecological Sustainability (EAGLES).

Durglo has worked for the Tribes for more than 40 years, most recently as head of the Tribal Preservation Department. In honor of his vision and accomplishments, President Obama named him a White House Champion of Change for Climate Equity in 2016, and he was recently appointed to the National Advisory Council for Climate Adaptation and Science.

Interactive StoryMaps, initially developed by Durglo and Kyle Bocinsky, the director of climate extension at the Montana Climate Office, earned a Native Nations Traditional Ecological Knowledge award in 2023. The StoryMaps blend stories, graphics, and recordings to explore the impacts of climate change from ecological, traditional and cultural perspectives.

Durglo's latest endeavor is a grant-funded "carbon footprint assessment for the whole tribal organization." In order to reach CSKT's goal of attaining carbon neutrality, "we need to have a baseline," he said Friday. "We need to know where we're at right now."

Forecasting tools for the future

Kyle Bocinsky, who was one of many speakers at Friday's event, discussed the many tentacles of data that the University of Montana-based Montana Climate Office uses to track climate cycles across the state, from daily assessments to long-range models.

He noted that this year's snowpack in the north, middle and south fork of the Flathead River is at 68% normal, "the second worst on record right now."

The Northern Rockies, he said, are emerging from "a very strong El Nino event," that brought low snowfall and warmer temperatures to the region, which in turn creates a higher rate of evaporation. While that's part of a cycle, the historic record reveals more significant long-term trends.

According to Bocinsky, the average temperature in western Montana is 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which reflects an increase of about half a degree per decade over the past 65 years, for a net temperature increase of about 2.7 degrees.

Average precipitation, however, is still about 18.7 inches per year. Stagnant precipitation and hotter temperatures are a formula for an increasingly arid landscape, Bocinsky said.

He adds that an uptake in global efforts to decrease carbon emissions may save the planet from the worst effects of climate change. But the choice remains: "Are you seeing global countries working together to solve the climate crisis, making sure that developing countries are being equitably treated? Or are you seeing global competition, where China and the U.S. are at loggerheads and aren't sharing technology?"

Either way, the Montana Climate Office predicts an increase in the number of days with temperatures above 90 degrees, especially during July, August and September. Montanans are also apt to see more precipitation in March, April and May, which increases the chance that moisture that used to fall as snow during the winter is going to arrive in the form of rain, which in turn increases the likelihood of flooding, and reduces the ability to store water for future use.

The Climate Office also predicts more extreme weather events, like flash droughts causing "rapid dry downs," like the kind that cost Montana farmers $2.6 billion in agricultural losses and caused fierce wildfires in 2017. The flip side is when heavy rainfall arrives in the spring, with warmer-than-usual temperatures, it can cause the remaining snowpack to gush from the mountains like it did last May.

Bocinsky says new high-tech weather stations are helping his office and weather forecasters across Montana offer more up-to-date analysis. The 120 stations across the state measure precipitation and temperature every five minutes, and track snowpack and soil moisture down to a meter in depth. That information is available at the Montana Mesonet Dashboard (

"The first one west of the continental divide was installed on the Bison Range," he said. About 35 weather stations are expected to come online each summer.

The Climate Office also offers a Drought Indicators Dashboard that's used by the State of Montana to issue drought declarations.

The Tribes have installed air-quality monitors across the reservation too, "so that when this fire season starts — and it will start — people have local alerts about the quality of their air," Bocinsky said.

At the close of Bocinsky's presentation, tribal elder Stephen Small Salmon spoke up. "I'm in Ronan, and it could be blizzard, just like the other day. It was a blizzard up here and there's no snow in Mission. Years ago, when you'd get that blizzard, it was all over the reservation."

"I'm an old timer," he added. "Even with all these gadgets you guys got, the thing I see now is how could you have figured that out?"

Bocinsky said local monitoring will help track increasingly erratic weather systems that might deliver snow in one community, rain in the next town, and high winds in another. "We need more investment in those sorts of things, those local observation networks."

While Durglo said he had hoped for a larger attendance at Friday's Earth Day event, he believes public awareness of the climate crisis in growing.

"When I first started doing climate work, which was 2009 ... the number of people in the room at that time was really small."

Although he continues to feel frustrated at the pace of change, the last 15 years have taught him to have faith. "We have to support each other and say, 'yes, we can.' We can actually do something."

For more on CSKT's efforts to foster climate resiliency, visit