GLIFWC: Climate change could be changing the face of Indian Country and the World

As part of IndianCountryTV’s work with First Nations Experience (FNX) this interview was produced early this year at Odanah, Wisconsin.

Paul DeMain: Introduce yourself? Tell us your name and your title and a little bit about what your official position is at Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission?

Hannah: So my name is Hannah Panci. I’m a scientist in the Climate Change Program at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. I’ve been there for two and a half years now. We have a new climate change program, as of two years ago. We have five climate change staff, and we’re all tasked with figuring out what climate change might do to the resources in this area, that tribes depend on and how tribes might be able to adapt in the future.

Hannah Panci Studying Wild Onions, GLIFWC scientists are studying plants like this to determine how lighter snow cover or earlier spring thaws are affecting them as treaty protected resources. photo via GLIFWC

Paul DeMain: What’s being studied at fish and wildlife?

Hannah: So as part of our climate change program we have, I’m a scientist, we have a climate change program coordinator, we have a Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) outreach specialist, and we have two fisheries staff. So the coordinator is kind of in charge of the whole program, conducting outreach with the tribes, making sure the program is running smoothly, and then the scientists are tasked with studying climate change effects on resources and the ceded territories. So our traditional ecological outreach specialist, Melanie Montano is going out to communities to conduct interviews with elders and harvesters, to see what changes they’ve experienced, what changes they’ve heard about, any traditional stories or teachings that might give us some clues as to what climate change might do in this area.

Paul DeMain: Tell us what people are finding in the community. Are they finding a good reception toward these studies? Are they finding documentation and information that’s helpful to the whole research project? Tell us what kinds of things they might be finding.

Hannah: So in general, most of the community members are really receptive. They’re really happy to share their knowledge. They’re happy that we’re here working on GLIFWC to protect their treaty rights and to study climate change, and they have, whether they know it or not, they have an incredible amount of knowledge and observations that can help us understand climate change effects. So they’re very receptive. They’re willing to help, they’re stepping forward and we’re getting a lot of information that we will ... We’re trying to match up the traditional ecological knowledge that we’re getting in interviews with a lot of the more western science. There’s other scientific approaches that we’re using in our office and we have a couple of other studies that I can talk about too.

Paul DeMain: Why don’t you go ahead and talk about the studies. Tell us what those studies are.

Hannah: So as a climate change scientist, one of the studies that we are doing is a phenology study. We’re looking at seasonal changes of 11 different plant species in the ceded territories. We have two study sites, one is in the Chequamegon National Forest and the other is in iron county, and we’re tracking these 11 plant species weekly or biweekly during the growing season to see when they’re flowering, when they’re leafing out, when their leaves are changing color and falling off when berries are ripening and we’re tracking these every week from the beginning of the growing season to the end of the growing season. So we started two years ago.

Now we have two years of data and we’re hoping that this will be a longterm study that we can eventually track how climate changes might be affecting these individuals.
We have weather stations out at the sites collecting temperature and precipitation data and we’re hoping to correlate temperature and precipitation data with what’s happening seasonally with these plants.

Paul DeMain: Within these studies, has there been anything that has stood out? Has anyone come back to you and say, hey, look at how dramatically this is compared to what we know? Does anything stand out in terms of those researchers?

Hannah: So far in our phenology study, we’re just in our second year, we have noticed a lot of differences just between the two years. That’s more probably related to weather. Hopefully once we have 10 years of data, we can get things that are more related to climate change.

I would say that we have heard a lot of things that are surprising. We’ve heard of people tapping maple trees really early in the year. Definitely more variable year to year. The ice is going out earlier and people are able to spear earlier in the season, a lot of things are changing or becoming more variable.

Paul DeMain: Have you seen different kinds of insect species that are connected with warming or trending or anything like that? Are you looking at anything?

Hannah: We aren’t following insect species. That’s something we’d like to incorporate in the future if possible, but when we’re out in the field, we’re noting anything else that seems unusual to us. So we’re tracking just those 11 plants species, but we’re also noting anything else that might be of interest.

Paul DeMain:  I was talking to Marshall  PeCore of the Menominee Nation, and he said they had gotten 150 years of studies having to do with forestry going back to the treaty and that they’ve now been managing their forest in part from blow downs and storms coming through the reservation rather than just the long term management plan. Storms seem to be one of the things that scientists said are going to be more frequent with heavier down pours. July 11th, 2016, the Bad River Ojibwe were isolated because of a downpour here that blew out the bridges. Tell us what you remember about that and what you were thinking about that storm in relationship to climate change.

Hannah: Well on July 11th, 2016, I woke up and took my dog for a walk. I was planning on going into work later in the morning. I ran into a neighbor and she said, oh, I don’t think you’ll be able to get to work today. I hadn’t checked my computer or phone or anything or listen to the radio. So I didn’t know that the big storm had happened, but I looked on the news and Highway 2 was washed out between Ironwood and Odana and also, west of Odana between Ashland and Odana. So I wasn’t able to go to work.

I was planning on attending the healing circle run that GLIFWC holds every year. It’s a run from community to community, just to honor those communities and the struggles that they’ve had. I think the healing circle run did go on. There are a few individuals that made it over there and were able to get shuttled across some of the water that was raging across the highway. But, I wasn’t able to. And the whole office was closed for a week.

Paul DeMain: I heard that some people were on their way to a session  at Red Cliff that had to do with climate change.

Hannah: That’s also true. There was a climate change adaptation workshop in Red Cliff that a few of us were planning on attending. Ironically we weren’t able to attend.

Paul DeMain: Are there any stories or any personal experiences around climate change that you’ve experienced or feel kind of personalizes what might be occurring with global warming?

Hannah: I feel like I have felt the effects of climate change just in my lifetime. I remember winters where we had just tons of snow and I was a little kid playing outside. It seems like that’s becoming less frequent. I moved up here for the snow, so that’s one of the things that I’m really concerned about.

I was planning on racing the American Birkebeiner last year in northern Wisconsin, it’s the largest ski race in North America and people come from all over the world to race this race and we didn’t have enough snow last year for the American Birkebeiner, so that was quite a shock.

There have been years where it’s been canceled before, but it’s been increasingly happening as time goes on. We seem to be getting less snow.

Climate change projections are for maybe a little bit more lake effect snow as the lake warms. So in the Lake Superior snowbelt there might be a little bit more lake effect snow, but overall we’ll probably have less snow, more rain in the winter. So we’ll have less snow on the ground overall, which will definitely affect cross country skiing. It’ll definitely affect a lot of the animals and plants that are out there that depend on a deep fluffy snow pack and it’ll affect everyone using the land.

Paul DeMain: What about the water levels? Will decreased snowfall and the rain in the winter, will that severely impact water levels that you know of? Is that something you guys are looking at?

Hannah: So at GLIFWC we do have some people studying water quality and we have a lot of water.

There may be lots of effects on the water levels with climate change and that’s really hard to predict.we’re thinking maybe more precipitation in the winter and spring, maybe less in the summer and fall, but we’ll see bigger storms and more frequently. So the water levels could be a lot more variable. We could see a huge storm come in. Where water levels go way up and then we could see a period of drought where maybe the water levels dropped back down and that’s really hard to predict, but we know that there will be more variable..

Paul DeMain: Has fish and wildlife looked at any of the feeding chains having to do with Walleye? Is the mayfly a subject of fish and wildlife’s a study. Like on Mille Lacs (Lake), we know there’s a reduction in Walleye. I say we understood there’s a reduction of Walleye on Mille Lacs and some people are saying it has to do maybe with the feeding chain. Is there anything that you could tell us about what’s happening at Mille Lacs?

Hannah: We definitely are involved in studying Walleye on Mille Lacs and I know there’s a lot of people concerned, tribal people, non tribal people all concerned about the Walleye populations which are going down dramatically and we do have a fisheries biologist at GLWFC, a climate change fisheries biologist, and he’d probably be able to describe the food chain effects a little bit more than I would.

Paul DeMain: Is there any other particular component that you’ve been involved with that has come up? We talked a little bit about earlier tapping. Are we seeing any other changes in any other species that might be impacted by climate change that you’re aware of?

Hannah: One of the projects I’m working in the climate change program is a vulnerability assessment for 60 species of importance to our member tribes. We had our Traditional Ecological Knowledge outreach specialist ask people in the communities which species they’re interested in and so we compiled the top 60 and a tool that we’re using called a climate change vulnerability index, that looks at all kinds of different components of each species’ natural history.

So we’re looking at how sensitive they are to climate change, how exposed they will be to climate change and how able they are to adapt to climate change. And we’re able to kind of rank them according to their vulnerability. This will help us moving forward in adjusting any management techniques that we might need to, to accommodate for those species and prioritize our efforts moving forward.

Paul DeMain: Give me an example of one of the top five species and what you might be looking at.

Hannah:  So wild rice is an example of a species that’s really vulnerable to climate change, and could be affected in pretty much every stage of its life. When it’s in it’s floating leaf stage, it’s really vulnerable to changes in the water level. So dramatic storms that come in and raise the water level could drown the wild rice plants. Increases in temperature can also affect wild rice seed, germination rates aren’t as high and warm, wet summers are problems, particularly when you have warm, humid nights were brown spot fungus is able to linger on the plant a little bit more. And that can harm the plant. The plants also vulnerable to wind. So if we have any bigger storms that come through that can really damage the plants.

The July 11 storm in 2016 did have impacts on wild rice. There were some places that were expected to have good rice that year, that didn’t. And that probably had to do with water levels coming up and washing out a lot of the areas that might have had good wild rice. There were some good rice beds that year, but it was really variable.

Paul DeMain: Is there any reason to believe that those storms have had any positive impact on things like rice or anything? Are we seeing anything at all that might say that maybe that’s not so bad to have 100 year storm every 100 years. Or a 100 year storm every five years. Or is that what you’re looking for? You’re looking for evidence of what’s actually occurring with these species?

Hannah: So big storms. I think it really depends on what the conditions are at the time. It could be that a big storm is beneficial if maybe the water levels are really low and have been low for a long time and a big storm brings a lot of water in. I think that could be beneficial in some cases. I think in general a lot of things will not tolerate those big storms that come through more frequently.

Paul DeMain: Is there any observations in regard to global warming, climate change that’s connected to cultural or spiritual beliefs?

Hannah: So Melanie Montano is our Traditional Ecological Knowledge Outreach Specialist and she’s been the one mostly going into the communities and hearing these stories. And she can speak to that.

The Snowshoe Hare is one of the species in our vulnerability assessment and that’s one of the most vulnerable that we found. So their date of color change isn’t very flexible, particularly in the fall. So they’re turning white before the snow comes, which makes them stand out to predators and makes them a lot more vulnerable. They’re also at the southern end of their range here. So any increases in temperature or changes to their food supply might mean a continued decline in the Waboose. And we’ve already seen that the range is moving north in Wisconsin. It was kind of, two thirds down the state and it’s gradually moving north. So that’s definitely a species of concern that we’ll continue looking at.

The vulnerability assessment that we conducted looked at 60 species. The top five species in our vulnerability assessment were a wild rice, Moose, Snowshoe Hare, Tullibee and American Martin.

All of those top five species are vulnerable to climate change in a lot of different ways. There’s not just one thing, not just temperature, not just changes in precipitation or increases in storm events, but there are multiple things that will come with climate change that will affect those species.

Paul DeMain: Let’s talk about Moose. There’s been a massive reduction in the population in Minnesota.

Hannah: So the Moose population has declined dramatically in northern Minnesota and has become an iconic species of climate change in the Midwest. And that’s for a variety of reasons. Increased temperatures and warmer winters are allowing winter ticks to live longer or survive the winter better. And so these animals are infested by winter ticks a lot of times that causes them to rub off their fur, and then that makes them more vulnerable to changes in temperature.

The American marten is another species we’ve found to be really vulnerable to climate change. They require a really deep, fluffy snow pack. They burrow in what we call the subnivean zone, so under the snow. And if our snow is less dense or if the snow is less deep, that might make it harder for them to evade predators.

They also hunt under the snow, so that might make it harder for them to find food.  

Snowshoe Hare is one food source for the American Marten, so declines in Snowshoe Hare might affect them. And they might be out-competed by a lot of other predators that will be favored by climate change. Fisher will probably do a little bit better and then a lot of other carnivores might do a little bit better, and so the American Marten will have a harder time.

Another project we’re working on in our climate change program is seed bank project, so we are focusing on two species so far; so paper birch and ash, mostly black ash. What our goal is to collect these seeds and then we will send them to a seed bank in Fort Collins, Colorado for a long-term storage, so the seeds will be dried and stored in cold temperatures where they’ll remain viable and in the future we will have these seeds available if we would like to do any reforestation or replanting of these trees.

Paper birch and black ash are both vulnerable to climate change. We know paper birch has declined about 49% since 1980 and large paper birch especially, which is a good supply of birch bark for Native peoples, has been in decline.

We’re interested in gathering seeds for paper birch, because that’s a really cultural important species and we’re also interested in gathering seeds for black ash, because it’s used for basket making.

Paul DeMain: What’s impacting black ash?

Hannah: Black ash is under threat by climate change, but also by the emerald ash borer, which is in the state, and we expect to see it continue moving in this direction and killing a lot of ash trees. It’s expected that most of the ash could be wiped out by the borer, and so we’re kind of in a time crunch. We want to get out there and collect as many seeds as we can just to have some back-up seed supply of black ash if that were to happen.

Emerald Ash Borer

Paul DeMain: I am aware of some tribes who have a black ash grove, and they’re cutting everything around it for miles to create preserves and a protective cooridor around it. Tell us what a phenology study is? Tell us what phenology is.

Hannah: Phenology is the study of seasonal changes, so it could be looking at when birds migrate, when maple trees are tapped in the spring, when blueberries are ripe. These changes will vary from year to year and those are really good indicators of climate change.

In our phenology study we’re looking at plant species. We have 11 plant species that we’re tracking, and we’re looking at all of the little life stages of these plants, so when they form buds, when the buds open, when they’re flowering, when they’re leafing out and we’re tracking the dates of all of these things and we will track that every year hopefully for the next 10 years at least, and we’ll be able to see how climate change is affecting these resources in the ceded territories right now and get  real-time measure.

We have Paper Birch and Balsam Fir, Cedar, Sugar Maple, Black Ash that we’re looking at. We try to look at the species,  we looked in the phenology study, we looked at the vulnerability assessment and then two species from our seed bank project. We also have leeks, blueberries and raspberries, a couple shrubs and a several tree species.

Paul DeMain: Tell us why we’re looking at leeks? Are leeks vulnerable in some places?

Hannah: Leeks are one of the species we’re looking at in our phenology study and we’ve seen really big changes just in the two years of our phenology study, so one year we had leeks come up really early when we had a thaw really early in the spring, and then they were covered again by snow and remained dormant again until the snow melted and then they started growing again.


This last year we put a time-lapse camera on a leek patch, and so it recorded pictures every hour throughout the growing season and we now have a time-lapse video that’s been compiled that shows the progression of the leek patch throughout the whole growing season, which is really neat, so we can get data throughout the growing season for that.

We expect to do that again every year and then we’ll be able to compare those and see what’s happening in the leek patch.
Paul DeMain: You’re a scientist and you’re with a federal agency, and so I imagine there might be some constraints here, but is there a place to discuss what’s occurring, in regards to opposition to the fossil fuel industry as a scientist?

Hannah: Well at GLIFWC, we’re very concerned about pipelines crossing the ceded territory and we’re very concerned about mines going in, or the impacts of existing mines that might affect the air, the water, the land in this area. We do have staff that are devoted to just studying the effects of mining, the effects of mining on water and tracking pipelines and looking at the potential effects of pipeline spills on treaty resources.

Our goal is to maintain healthy populations of treaty resources for our member tribes and if mines or pipelines will impact that, then we’ll have something to say about it.

One of the goals of the climate change program is to integrate TEK with western science. Although that’s not my favorite term, but I don’t know what else to use really.  

In our climate change program we are trying to bring together as many knowledge sources as we can to figure out how climate change can affect treaty resources and that includes Western scientific knowledge as well as traditional ecological knowledge, and that includes any cultural knowledge embedded in the culture, traditional stories, traditional teachings or songs, any of those things have a lot of knowledge in them.

The Ojibwe language itself has a lot of knowledge right in the language that can really be useful for climate change. We have an outreach specialist whose conducting interviews with elders and harvesters in our member tribes, so she’s kind of tackling the TEK or traditional ecological knowledge side and some of us are using more of a standard scientific approach and we’re really trying to combine the two to come up with a richer knowledge to approach climate change.

We know Native peoples have been here for 1000s of years and the observations they have contain a lot of knowledge that will help us with climate change, and integrating these two sources of knowledge will make us a lot stronger and hopefully we can be a leader in this.

Paul DeMain: What’s the result of not paying attention to any of this stuff? Not only to treaty resources but to people in general? What’s going to happen if Fish and Wildlife wasn’t studying this or caring about it?

Hannah: If we’re not paying attention, before we know it there could be big declines in species that are really vulnerable to climate change and that will affect everyone that lives here. It will really affect tribal members that are dependent on these resources for subsistence survival, and it’ll affect anyone who is dependent on the tourist economy and it will affect pretty much everyone who lives here.

Paul DeMain: What’s going to happen to mankind if we don’t pay attention? I mean, you’re dealing with all the little sub-impacts. Wild onions, wild rice season is earlier or later, more blow downs, less food, less medicines. Are people taking the discussion over global warming and climate change serious enough? What’s the impact on mankind?

Hannah: Well, I think climate change is a really serious issue and it’s not, maybe, talked about in our political climate as much as it should be, but I think there’s a lot of action being taken out there. I think that efforts such as GLIFWC’s to incorporate tribal knowledge and bring together a lot of different people under one goal approaching climate change is a positive thing, so I think there is hope for the future.

Paul DeMain: Okay. Well, if you in your role as a scientist have hope for the future, that makes me feel better.

Hannah: We’ve definitely seen impacts from climate change around here.

At GLIFWC, we do have a variety of weather stations out across the ceded territories, so we are recording temperature and precipitation and we’ll be able to track storms a little bit that way... big storms are one of the more visibile things people might experience with climate change. For example on December 5th, we had a huge thunderstorm. It was probably the biggest of the year, which is very unusual in December. We had a lot of rain followed by a lot of snow. We woke up and all our cars were cased in ice and snow.

That’s definitely unusual, it’s hard to say that one storm was the result of climate change, but those are the types of storms we expect to see more of as climate change continues. We’ll see more unusual storms in times of the year when we wouldn’t normally expect them, bigger storms that could have big impacts on people, on infrastructure, similar to what happened on the July 11 storm when people were stuck without access to medical care, people were out of work, people didn’t have access to food. Those are very serious, real impacts.

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