director Blog: Native Americans are Key to the Future of Conservation

Native Americans are Key to the Future of Conservation

Indian country encompasses some of the most important and untrammeled land left in the country. More than 100 million acres, stewarded by people who understand the value of their natural heritage with the land.

Penobscot Indian Nation Elder Butch Phillips continues the traditional smudging ceremony.Penobscot Indian Nation Elder Butch Phillips performs a traditional smudging ceremony for purification before the July breaching of the Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River in Maine. Credit: Meagan Racey/USFWS

But even 100 million acres isn’t enough, if they are fragmented and separated from the lands around them.  Wildlife doesn’t recognize the boundaries of federal, state, Tribal or private lands.  We can’t either.

We are celebrating Native American Heritage Month in November, and Native Americans must be part of the conservation decision-making.  They deserve no less, and the stakes -– the very future of the wild things and wild places we all hold dear -– are too great not to welcome a key partner to the table.

In 2013, I asked our programs and regions to develop innovative ways we can work with Tribes.  And the Service put $1 million to begin this venture.

We are working to rewrite the Native American Policy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, so we partnered with a highly respected council of Tribal representatives to guide us.  The new policy will help guide and promote better working relationships with Native American Tribes and Alaska Natives.

Earlier this year, we awarded $4 million in Tribal Wildlife Grants to 23 Tribes in 14 states.  Through this program, more than $60 million has provided support for more than 360 conservation projects administered by participating federally recognized Tribes. 

Tribes have been at our side in the successful recovery of many imperiled species.

John McCain and Daniel ParkerArizona Fish & Wildlife Conservation Office employee and White Mountain Apache Tribal member Daniel Parker sits with a very young Sen. John McCain at an annual "Fish Camp" at Christmas Tree Lake (managed as a trophy Apache trout fishery) on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Credit: USFWS

In the Southwest, I think about the efforts of the Pueblos with Rio Grande species like the silvery minnow and the Southwestern willow flycatcher.

The Nez Perce played an important role in returning gray wolves to the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho.

We are working with the Penobscot Indian Nation and many others in the Northeast on one of the largest river restoration projects in the country.  The work will open more than 1,000 miles of native habitat on Maine’s Penobscot River for federally listed Atlantic salmon and other aquatic species for the public to enjoy.

In the Pacific Northwest, we are working with partners to bring together Tribes’ Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and Western science to manage natural resources in the face of climate change.

The Great Law of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, says, “In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation...”

That, in a nutshell, is what conservation is all about.  It’s about looking beyond the surface appearance of the landscape and taking the time to understand how the ecosystem functions over generations.

It’s about planting a tree, knowing you’ll never live to see it tower over the landscape. Or releasing a wolf into the wild, hoping your grandkids will see its ancestors thriving decades later.

Tribes know this, and we need their insight now more than ever. 

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Last updated: August 31, 2011