Integrating Traditional Ecological Knowledge in Montana

Garden Creek area on the Flathead Reservation in Montana. The area has been burned on purpose multiple times. Photo: Katy Spence. 

Western Montana tribes are working to put more fire on the ground, just as their ancestors did for thousands of years. These tribal managers are integrating historic tribal knowledge with modern practices.  

Katy Spence shares her interviews of Art Trahan and others in her recent article. Trahan is a veteran fire technician and firefighter for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) Division of Fire. To him, the legacy of fire is clear in the Garden Creek area of the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. 

Trahan points to the forest in the Garden Creek area that has seen multiple prescribed burns under CSKT management over the years. Mature ponderosa pines tower above younger ponderosa and western larch. Huckleberry and buffaloberry bushes intermingle with other foliage in the underbrush. All evidence that periodic burning in this area is benefitting the ecosystem here. Trahan notes that the wildfires that burn through here may have flames that reach two or three feet high.  The large established pines barely feel a thing and firefighters can more easily manage these lower intensity flames. 

This is just one of many examples of how tribes in western Montana are working in support of the 2000 Flathead Indian Reservation Forest Management Plan. The first of its kind almost two decades ago, the Plan incorporates a holistic ecosystem approach to forest management, considering the health of the entire forest in addition to timber production. The Plan also outlines education goals to help residents learn about these practices and non-timber uses of forest goods. 

Tribes see themselves as caretakers who must treat the land and its gifts with respect. Therefore, they look at other resource values and cultural use more than a technical forest manager might. 

The integration of traditional ecological knowledge into management practices incorporates place-based knowledge of land and climate, tribal beliefs and cultural values.  In 2012 and 2015, two workshops in western Montana brought together tribal and non-tribal land managers to discuss the challenges and benefits of utilizing traditional knowledge in modern management practices. 

Read Katy Spence’s full article here.  And more information about the CSKT tribal land management efforts here