Threat of Salmon Extinction Turns Small Tribe Into Climate Researchers

As glaciers disappear, fish are expected to follow. But the Nooksack tribe of Washington state has a plan to keep nearby rivers and streams cool.
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Jezra Beaulieu at Runoff measurement Gage. Photo courtesy of Mauri Pelto.

Gary MacWilliams wants to save his heritage. A member of the Nooksack Indian Tribe of northwestern Washington state and an occasional fisherman—a job at which he sheepishly says he did “reasonably well”—the 63-year-old has seen ups and downs in local fishing. Nonetheless, he says, there’s a clear trend: Salmon, the bedrock of his culture, are under increasing threat from climate change.

Located some 100 miles north of Seattle, the Nooksack Indian Reservation sits at the base of Mount Baker. Its traditional lands rise from sea level to nearly 11,000 feet in elevation, and what happens on the peaks affects the ground below. As the climate warms, mountain glaciers are receding. These glaciers feed the streams and rivers on which the tribe depends for annual runs of the endangered spring Chinook salmon. As the glaciers disappear, the fish are expected to follow.

Glaciers supply rivers and streams with a reliable flow of cool water. As air temperatures rise under climate change, many local stream and river temperatures are expected to exceed what the cold-water-adapted salmon have evolved to tolerate, according to recent scientific analyses. If temperatures get too high, scientists warn, the fish will disappear. However, MacWilliams has a plan to help cool the water down, and his efforts are now informing state and perhaps federal policy on how to deal with the mounting threats of climate change.

“Salmon [are] an important part of our heritage, our culture,” MacWilliams says. “If we want to hold onto salmon, we have to do something about climate change.” As director of his tribe’s natural resources department, MacWilliams has been running a sophisticated environmental research and restoration effort aimed at helping spring-run Chinook salmon and other culturally important species survive.

His goal is to grow large trees close to the banks of streams and rivers, providing shade over the water. He also plans on creating in-stream habitats made of logs under which fish can cool off when things heat up. This won’t stop what’s happening to the nearby mountain glaciers, MacWilliams stresses, but it will offer some relief.

As the glaciers disappear, the fish are expected to follow.

Later this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology are set to release a plan outlining the impacts climate change is expected to have on the Chinook and other climate-threatened fish species on Nooksack lands. The plan will designate rising water temperatures due to climate change as a pollutant to the fish under the Clean Water Act, making lowering temperatures a “clean-up” priority.

This won’t be the first time the Clean Water Act has been used to regulate overly warm temperatures as a pollutant to fish. However, this is expected to be the first time climate change will be part of the equation. This means the Nooksack’s restoration efforts will consider not only warming that has already happened, but also warming that is projected to happen in the future. That long-term planning makes it a notable first.

For roughly five years, the Nooksack have quietly made their case in meetings with the EPA and the Washington State Department of Ecology that climatic changes, especially those seen on local glaciers, should be included in the agencies’ stream restoration work. To strengthen its argument, the tribe has worked to draft a comprehensive climate adaptation strategy for 720,000 acres of traditional hunting and gathering lands just south of the Canadian border.

The Nooksack have hired scientists, enlisted the help of researchers at local universities to create computer models simulating how stream temperatures could rise in the future, and worked with a leading glacier expert to set up a stream and glacier monitoring program on icy Mount Baker. Due in large part to their efforts, climate change is now front and center in the EPA and state’s current project on the tribe’s land.

If temperatures get too high, scientists warn, the fish will disappear.

The project focuses on the South Fork of the Nooksack River, one of three forks of the river with headwaters in the snow and glacier-capped peaks of Mount Baker and other mountains in the Cascades range. Of the three, the South Fork suffers from the worst temperature extremes, and the state lists the river as too warm for salmon and, therefore, not in compliance with the Clean Water Act.

“If we do nothing, the stream temperatures become lethal over significant lengths,” says Steve Hood, a researcher at the Washington State Department of Ecology overseeing the project at the South Fork.

To cool things down and get the South Fork back in compliance, Hood and the EPA are expected to recommend the same types of restoration efforts that MacWilliams and the Nooksack have been pushing for. These include planting trees and dumping large piles of logs—called log jams—into the river for fish to huddle under. A draft of the project has not yet been released, but Hood says the tree heights his agency is recommending will be taller than they have been in the past. This is the result of the Nooksack pushing the EPA to reassess its numbers to account for the fact that the region’s trees were taller before widespread logging and agriculture came on the heels of European settlement.

Since colonization, the Nooksack’s lands have been altered dramatically. A landscape once dominated by conifer and riparian forests has become a mix of farms and commercial and national forest lands. The changes have significantly impacted the area’s ecology and have been linked to a rise in stream temperatures.

Due in large part to their efforts, climate change is now front and center in the EPA and state’s current project on the tribe’s land.

In a 2012 paper published in the journal Climatic Change, Oliver Grah and Jezra Beaulieu, both non-tribal researchers hired by the Nooksack, outlined some of how the tribe’s cultural and natural resources will be affected by climate change. They discovered that local salmon runs are estimated to be a mere 2 to 8 percent of what they were in the late 1800s. These low numbers make the fish—all nine salmon species in the Nooksack River—especially vulnerable to even the smallest changes. And climate change will be a huge change, one that could lead to local extinctions.

“Climate change impacts could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Grah says. “[It] will likely have an effect on the ability of tribal members to harvest fish.”

Following his initial analysis, Grah has led the tribe’s glacier monitoring effort on Mount Baker. He has talked regional climate researchers into computer modeling the tribe’s watershed, and he’s pushed the department of ecology to include many of the tribe’s findings in its current South Fork project.

Last year was the hottest on record in both Oregon and Washington, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and appeared strikingly similar to how climate researchers think the middle of this century will look under climate change.

“Of the 32 years we’ve got measurements for, last year was the worst year by far,” says Mauri Pelto, a professor at Nichols College in Massachusetts, who works closely with Grah. The effect of melting glaciers is hard to miss, he says.

Of the 10 glaciers Pelto originally began studying in the north Cascades, three have disappeared and most have lost at least 20 percent of their volume, he says. Of particular interest to the tribe is the Sholes Glacier on Mount Baker. During the hot, late summer months, it sends icy flows downstream, helping to keep water temperatures cool.

The Sholes has melted into three separate glaciers. The culprit, Pelto says, is rising temperatures that are not only melting the ice but also producing rain where once there was snow. New snow adds to a glacier’s mass and, lying on top of it, tends to melt before a glacier itself. As temperatures rise, Pelto says, glaciers experience a double whammy: with less snow the glacier gains less mass and melts sooner.

“Sholes glacier is not going to survive,” Pelto says. “There are many years when it retains no snow. With Sholes, it’s just a matter of time.”

The Nooksack face yet another problem in their efforts to adapt to climate change: Much of the restoration the tribe wants to accomplish will need to happen on private land.

The Nooksack reservation is tiny, only about 2.2 acres in size. But through their guaranteed treaty with the U.S. government, members of this sovereign nation—some 2,000 in total—have the legal right to hunt, fish, and gather traditional foods on 720,000 acres of surrounding land.

However, these treaty guarantees don’t give the Nooksack the authority to direct private landowners on how to manage their properties. Likewise, the EPA and the state can’t legally require local landowners to comply with restoration recommendations, such as planting trees or preserving forest in order to increase shade along the banks of the South Fork.

The reason has to do with the tricky way the law defines pollution. The Clean Water Act was designed primarily as a way to regulate sources of pollution in which a single polluter is on the hook—for instance, chemicals coming from a factory. However, the Clean Water Act also recognizes things like agricultural run-off from multiple farms that produces an algae bloom killing a large population of fish. But how do you assign legal responsibility across multiple polluters? The law effectively says you can’t. Instead, it recommends voluntary compliance and incentives.

Stream temperature warming from climate change is just such an indeterminate, or “nonpoint,” source of pollution and is hard to regulate, says Nina Bell, executive director of the environmental group Northwest Environmental Advocates.

“If the state fails, the EPA doesn’t have to do anything about nonpoint sources,” Bell says. “Basically, what you have is a situation where the states are captive to the landowners.” Northwest Environmental Advocates is one of several environmental groups that have sued the EPA over its handling of nonpoint pollution. The EPA declined to comment on the success of past efforts in the Northwest to protect salmon and other fish from warming temperatures.

“Climate change impacts could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Grah says. “[It] will likely have an effect on the ability of tribal members to harvest fish.”

For his part, MacWilliams says he is familiar with these critiques of the Clean Water Act. However, he says working together, not assigning blame, should be the focus. And the Nooksack are reaching out to their neighbors for help with adaptation efforts.

“We need to work with the landowners. We have to. We’ll have to just feel them out and see how this goes,” he says.

Since 2006, MacWilliams says, the local farmers and ranchers the tribe has worked with have been good neighbors, adding that the political climate where he lives is much better than in much of the rest of the country.

A soft-spoken man with a wry sense of humor, MacWilliams says he is disheartened that much of America continues to deny the reality of climate change, a reality that he says is already apparent to many Native Americans.

“We have already seen a definite impact on tribal fishermen. Temperatures have been increasing on the South Fork of Nooksack River, and it’s been a problem for at least 10 years, and we’ve seen less [river] flow,” he says.

MacWilliams’ hope is that salmon will survive the coming climate crisis, providing a legacy for generations to come.

“I have seen it firsthand, how it is necessary to get the youth involved in traditional methods and exercise their treaty rights,” MacWilliams says. “We would like to steer them in the right direction. Many young people are now interested in the traditional ways, and I find that encouraging.”