Conservation in Indian Country: Strengthening Our Relationships with Tribes

As the conservation community faces immense challenges to make wildlife conservation relevant and important to a rapidly growing and changing society, we are privileged to have as partners Native American Tribes, who understand the value of their natural heritage. 

Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge Manager Charlie Blair talks with Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a spiritual leader of the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota Sioux.Credit: Charles Traxler/USFWS

With Tribes at our side, we have given many imperiled species a better chance in the modern world.

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

Tribes have certainly been vital partners our ongoing work to recover the black-footed ferret.  Six of the 20 ferret reintroduction sites are on Tribal lands. I could go on for ages

I had the good fortune to help our team release about 20 ferrets on Lower Brule Tribal lands in central South Dakota a few years ago. It was one of the highlights of my conservation career. I want to expand and magnify that feeling of accomplishment and success, strengthening our partnership wherever possible.

That’s why I’m proud to announce the selection of Scott Aikin as the Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Native American Liaison.

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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. 

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Turning to Tribes

I had the honor a few weeks ago of speaking to the Native American Fish & Wildlife Society National Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. It was important for me to go out there and meet with members of the Native American conservation community because Tribes deserve a seat at the table where conservation decisions are made and priorities set. And to form that kind of true partnership, we must develop a relationship based on trust and shared values.  I hope my visit helped that process.

We need to work together toward a lasting impact on the landscape.  No one – not the Fish and Wildlife Service nor any other organization – is large enough to make a true difference acting alone.

NAFWS

Here I am between Native American Fish and Wildlife Society Executive Director Fred Matt and President Ron Skates. Credit: Karen Lynch, NAFWS

We do already work together. Native American Tribes have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us on many successes. The White Mountain Apache Tribe has helped with the Apache trout in Arizona. The Nez Perce were integral to returning gray wolves to the Northern Rocky Mountains in Idaho.

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Last updated: August 31, 2011