Anticipating future impacts from climate change is a challenging task. Climate change is one of the most dramatic and widespread impacts the modern world has faced and attempting to come to terms with the data and implications can be daunting. Fortunately we are not facing it alone. Tribal and non-tribal peoples around the world are engaged in efforts to halt fossil fuel production, move to renewable energy and transportation systems, document the current impacts from climate change, and plan for the future. This report is one piece of that effort. The Karuk Department of Natural Resources Strategic Plan notes that:

“Since time immemorial, the Karuk have lived in the Klamath-Siskiyou Mountains in the mid- Klamath River region of northern California. With an Aboriginal Territory that includes an estimated 1.38 million acres, the ancestral people of the Karuk resided in more than one hundred villages along the Klamath and Salmon Rivers and tributaries. Thriving with a subsistence economy supported by rich natural endowments and a strong culture-based commitment to land stewardship, Karuk environmental management has shaped the region’s ecological conditions for millennia. Through carefully observing natural processes, the Karuk have developed traditional management regimes based on a landscape-level ecosystem approach. Self-described as “fix the world people”, the Karuk continue ceremonies that restore balance and renew the world.”


Juvenile fish die-offs have already been a regular summer occurrence due to low flows, high water temps and resulting diseases. Photo: KSMC

Today, the task of fixing the world involves dealing with new threats to both riverine and “upslope” forest or broader landscape habitats and species in the face of climate change, as shifting and increasingly variable precipitation patterns impact stream flows, snowpack, river temperatures and fire regimes (Butz et al. 2015, Melillo et al. 2014, Karl et al. 2009, Spies et al. 2010, Lata et al. 2010, Fettig et al. 2013, Wimberly and Liu 2014, Mote et al. 2014). Climate change is still often thought of as an issue affecting future people in some far away place. Within Karuk ancestral territory on the mid Klamath, the effects of climate change are immediate and occurring now (Butz and Safford 2010 and 2011, Vander Schaaf et al. 2004, Olson et al. 2012, Damschen et al. 2010, Harrison et al. 2010).

Ongoing and future ecological outcomes of climate change in the Mid Klamath region of California include changes in precipitation patterns, increased droughts, increased frequency and severity of wildfires, and disease and pest outbreaks (Butz et al. 2015, Garfin et al. 2014, Mote et al. 2014). Temperature measurements from Orleans, California, where the Karuk Department of Natural Resources is located, indicate that between 1931 and 2014 average annual temperatures increased by 2o F (1.1° C) (Butz et al. 2015). Klamath River temperature has also increased in the last fifty years (Bartholow 2005). Precipitation for Karuk Homeland territory is expected to be more variable, with a trend in increasing elevation for the snow/rain elevation. Maritime influences, on shore storms are predicted to moderate, the influences of more interior warming and drying for the western Klamath region (Butz and Safford 2010 and 2011, Vander Schaaf et al. 2004, Coops and Waring 2001).

These local impacts are consistent with regional, national and international trends as well as climate models (Bennett et al. 2014, Butz et al. 2015, Coops and Waring 2001, Dalton and Mote 2013, Gafin et al. 2014). Statewide, California is the hottest and driest since modern record keeping has taken place (Mann and Gleick 2015). The 2014 National Climate Assessment reports for the Southwest Region, which includes California, relates in their key findings that snowpack and streamflow amounts are projected to decline in parts of the Southwest, and increased warming, drought, and insect outbreaks, all caused by or linked to climate change have increased wildfires (see further discussion of these trends and their impacts in Chapter One).

Among the most pressing of the local dimensions of climate change taking place within Karuk ancestral territory is the increased risk of high severity fire (Lenihan et al. 2008), Mote and co-authors write:

The largest effects of future climatic variability or change on Northwest forests are likely to arise from changes in fire frequency and severity. Changes in other disturbances, such as wind, insects, and disease, are also possible under climatic change, although the potential character of these disturbances under climatic change is poorly understood. General warming is likely to encourage northward expansion of southern insects, while longer growing seasons are highly likely to allow more insect generations in a season. Forests that are moisture stressed are often more susceptible to attack by insects such as bark beetles and spruce budworm, although the timing and magnitude of effects varies greatly (e.g., Thomson et al., 1984; Swetnam and Lynch, 1993). Interactions between multiple disturbances (e.g., between insects and fire) will be especially important under projected climatic change (2003, p. 71).

US Forest Service Fire Effects Information Systems glossary defines fire severity as “the degree of environmental change caused by fire” (USFS ND). In this assessment, we use “high severity fire” to refer to fires that lead to severe soil and vegetation burns, including but not limited to fire that replaces entire stands and affects high percentages of the upper canopy layer. 11Locally in the Klamath Mountain region fire severity patterns have been described and evaluated with related but different metrics (see Odion et al. 2004, Miller et al. 2009 and 2012, Halofsky et al. 2011). The Klamath Basin has experienced a progressive increase in high severity fire in recent years as a result of both climate change and past and present federal land management practices that have led to increased fuel loads (Odion et al. 2004, Miller et al. 2009 and 2012, Taylor and Skinner 2003). While fire
is a central component of Karuk management and culture, increased fire severity and frequency poses particular and unique risks to specific Karuk tribal foods and cultural use species on the one hand, and to broader Tribal programmatic goals and activities on the other (Lake 2007 and 2013, Norgaard 2014, see Welch 2012 and Lake and Long 2014 for a broader discussion of fire effects to cultural resources and tribal values).

In addition to increases in fire severity, there are changing patterns of fire size, and changes in the frequency of these very large hot fires. Changes in fire size also result from a combination of climate change and local management actions. For the last thousand years, forested areas have become adapted to frequent occurrence of relatively low intensity fire from human and natural ignitions (Perry et al. 2011). These fire adapted forests burned in smaller overall areas in mosaic patterns that contained patches of high intensity fire (Mohr et al. 2000, Skinner et al. 2006, Perry et al. 2011).


Beaver Creek tree plantation after high severity fire. Photo: Stefan Dosch

Today, a combination of a century of fire exclusion, the presence of even-age highly fire prone tree ‘plantations,’ post logging brush fields, and changing patterns of temperature and precipitation have led to a series of very large, hot fires within Karuk ancestral territory and homelands (Odion et al. 2004, see Chapter Two). Again, the frequency of these much larger, high severity fires is increasing (Miller et al. 2012). Taken together, climate change and past management activities have created landscape conditions that could be completely devastating with future fires.

These conditions have the potential to transition much of Karuk ancestral territory to an early seral condition that has a tendency to repeatedly burn at high severity (Odion et al. 2010, Cocking et al. 2012). Such circumstances would mean the potential loss of many culturally significant species, in turn causing a domino effect through the entire ecosystem. Historical natural and human (tribal) ignitions formed landscape patterns of higher severity patches on southern aspect, higher slope near the ridges, with lower severity, or mixed severity in other locations of the landscape (see Taylor and Skinner 1998 and 2003). Fire exclusion and suppression practices, combined with forest management activities (e.g. harvesting older forest, establishing plantations). have increase the density of trees, shrubs, and fuel loading (Odion et al. 2004). Climate change, in particular changes in precipitation (ie. drought) coupled with increasing temperatures, has increased the susceptibility of forest to higher severity fires. Former frequent mixed-severity fires maintained a bio- physically mediated landscape of different vegetation conditions or seral stages. As these higher density vegetation and fuel loaded areas burn, generally the mature tree component is shifted to more early seral grass, forb, fern and shrub dominated vegetation (Shatford et al. 2007). Increases in potential receptivity of vegetation to ignition (e.g. increasing days of the fire season), now facilitates the prior-burned areas to burn again at higher severity, thus facilitating an altered state to more non-tree vegetation communities (Odion et al. 2010).

We, the Karuk Tribe are working to prevent these circumstances. We are evaluating the potential impacts of climate change in our region and preparing responses to mitigate possible losses (Norgaard 2014a and b, Karuk Tribe 2012). This Climate Vulnerability Assessment is a first step towards climate adaptation planning. Changing patterns of fire behavior affect specific Karuk tribal traditional foods and cultural use species, create infrastructure vulnerabilities to Karuk tribal programs and pose broader implications for the Tribe’s long term management authority and political status (Norgaard 2014 a and b). We consider the importance of vulnerabilities at each scale in Chapters Three, Four and Five.

Climate Change and Tribal Climate Justice

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines vulnerability as “the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected. Vulnerability encompasses a variety of concepts and elements including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt” (2014, p. 1775). 13An abundance of environmental and climate justice literature emphasizes that poor people and people of color will continue to be more impacted than the population at large as the climate changes (Cuomo 2011, Lynn et al. 2011, Shonkoff et al. 2011). While communities around the world are challenged to come to terms with unique combinations of ecological, economic and political threats, tribes face amongst the most immediate and significant impacts (Bennett et al. 2014, Cameron 2012, Donatuto and O’Neil 2010, Hanna 2007, Maldonado et al. 2013, Marino 2012, Stumpff 2009, Tsosie 2013, Whyte 2013, Williams and Hardison 2013, Wood 2014, Huffman 2014).

The 2014 National Climate Assessment Indigenous Peoples chapter explains that climate change impacts on tribes are likely to be especially severe given that they are “compounded by a number of persistent social and economic problems,” and that indigenous adaptive responses “occur against a backdrop of centuries-old cultures already stressed by historical events and contemporary conditions” (Bennett et al. 2014, p. 298). The authors identify a number of vulnerabilities that may affect (and are in some cases already affecting) indigenous communities in the face of climate change, including loss of traditional knowledge as a result of rapidly changing ecological conditions, increased food insecurity due to reduced availability of traditional foods, changing water availability, and loss of historic homelands in which indigenous lives, “The 2014 National Climate Assessment Indigenous Peoples chapter explains that climate change impacts on tribes are likely to be especially severe given that they are “compounded by a number of persistent social and economic problems,” and that indigenous adaptive responses “occur against a backdrop of centuries-old cultures already stressed by historical events and contemporary conditions.” traditions and subsistence activities have been carried out for millennia (Bennett et al. 2014).

As Karuk people we are fortunate to retain relationships with hundreds of species we consider our relations (Lake et al. 2010). These foods, medicines and fibers are embedded within cultural, social, spiritual, economic and political systems, and daily life (Lake 2013, Norgaard 2014). Impacts to culturally significant species in the face of climate change have thus more direct impacts on Karuk people than for communities who no longer retain such intimate connections with other beings and places in the natural world. Part of the increased vulnerabilities Karuk people face as the climate changes are a direct result of the strength of these connections. For example, the loss of acorn groves that have been family gathering sites for generations is much more than an economic impact.

Karuk culture is directly reliant and dependent on mixed fire severity regimes (see Lake 2007, Norgaard 2014 c.) Burning at a specific season, frequency, and intensity for a variety of severities linked with various vegetation community fire effects perpetuate cultural ecosystem services and resources. Many basketry materials require specific prescriptions or applied fire to promote morphological plant characteristics (Anderson 1999), or forest related food resources and habitat quality (Anderson and Lake 2013, Lake and Long 2014). Fire was and is a tool to manipulate landscape- to patch-scale fire effects necessary for Karuk cultural sustenance and well-being (Lake 2013).

A second dimension of Karuk vulnerability to high severity fire in light of climate change results from the actions taken (and not taken) by federal land managers before, during and after high severity fires (Welch 2012, Timmons et al. 2012, Norgaard 2014). A major dimension of vulnerability related to jurisdictional recognition and its results for tribal management authority and sovereignty (Williams and Hardison 2013, Tsosie 2007and 2012). The federal government’s primary trust responsibility to Indian Tribes was reaffirmed in 2014 by Secretarial Order 333-5: Federal Trust Responsibility to Federally Recognized Indian Tribes and Individual Indian Beneficiaries (Sec. Order 3335- Jewell 2014). Furthermore, as the Department of Interior acknowledged in Secretarial Order 3289, this responsibility includes the duty to protect lands from the impacts of climate change (USDI 2009). Despite the many policies regarding tribal consultation and tribal trust responsibility, lack of implementation of these policies in practice leaves Karuk tribal jurisdiction mostly unrecognized. Responding to the impacts of increased high severity fire both during and after the fires themselves requires coordination across jurisdictions with multiple federal and state governmental entities that may or may not understand their consultation responsibilities, carry them out appropriately, have conducted their own climate planning, or included the Karuk Tribe in their climate planning efforts. 15The resources and actions (or lack thereof) of federal agencies, from the U.S. Forest Service to CalTrans, can impact Karuk tribal vulnerabilities as much as climate change itself. An increased frequency of high severity wildfire has the potential to negatively impact infrastructure provided by other entities such as roads, electricity and water systems, which in turn may affect species of concern, program capacity and management authority (Chief et al. 2014, Cozzetto et al. 2013).

Responding to high severity fire in the context of this unrecognized jurisdiction is enormously time consuming for Karuk tribal staff. Unrecognized jurisdiction impacts tribal program capacity and management authority, leading to further unequal burdens for tribes. This Vulnerability Assessment engages the vulnerabilities faced by the Karuk Tribe in practice through an examination of both direct impacts from the increased severity of wildfire, and the impacts we as a Tribe face in light of the actions of federal agencies.

Climate Change Compels Action

The seriousness of climate change for humans and all species compels immediate action. Action is needed both to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases, and to cope with the present and continuing ecological and atmospheric changes affecting the Karuk Tribe. In

December of 2015 the leaders of nearly 200 nations around the world committed to keep global temperatures from exceeding 1.5 degrees C above modern levels. The “Paris Agreement” is, however, non-binding. It is imperative upon all people to keep pressure on responsible parties to take appropriate steps to reach this goal. Responding to the changing climate requires many different forms of action at many scales. Each nation, community, family and individual is uniquely positioned to respond in different ways. The most useful and appropriate actions to take will also vary across time.

Tribes have been key leaders in responding to climate change through both so-called
mitigation —efforts to stop further climate change— and adaptation — developing
responsive measures for coping with the unfolding ecological and atmospheric changes.
Tribes can often be found leading the way in climate change policy, strategy and resistance by participating in the political process, engaging in sustainable land stewardship, and being at the forefront of many climate change activism efforts (Williams and Hardison 2013, Whyte 2013). Despite not being major greenhouse gas emitters, many tribes have embarked upon ambitious projects to reduce their emissions including use of renewable energy and transportation sources. One important step many tribes are taking to prepare their communities for ongoing climate change impacts is carrying out a climate vulnerability assessment—such as this one— to find out the ways in which their communities are vulnerable to the climate impact projected for their region.1 These vulnerability assessments are typically followed up by the development of tribal climate change adaptation plans that aim to maximize tribal resistance and resilience in the face of projected impacts. The vulnerability assessment we have developed here is unique in that it holds the potential to inform both adaptation and mitigation efforts, given that wildfires themselves generate emissions (McMeeking et al. 2006, Langmann et al. 2009), and a reduction in high severity fires could result in a reduction in forest emissions (Defossé et al. 2011, Hurteau and North 2009, Volkova et al. 2014).

Need for Tribal Knowledge and Leadership

This document assesses vulnerabilities faced by the Karuk Tribe in light of increasing fire severity. It is important to note, however, that while much focus has been placed on the vulnerability of indigenous communities, the traditional knowledge, and deep interpersonal and interspecies network ties that often form part of indigenous communities are sources of significant resilience. 17Historically, tribes have adapted to numerous large- scale changes, be they environmental or social (Turner and Clifton 2009; Whyte 2013). If tribes are more vulnerable today it is not because of an inherent weakness, but because of the way colonialism and Western land management policies and practices have limited—if not outlawed— the ability of indigenous communities to exercise their resilient lifeways (See section on “Perspectives on Climate Change Vulnerability and Resilience” in Vinyeta et al. 2015 (p. 19) for more discussion).

Climate change vividly reveals the flaws of Western economic and environmental principles and practices. Western capitalist economies have prioritized profit over well-being, and individualism over community. Many proposed climate change solutions protect the status quo by prioritizing profit and individual responsibility, yet there is also an increasing realization that solutions must be found elsewhere, in alternative, community-based models that prioritize long-term social and environmental wellbeing (Whyte 2013, Dunlap and Brulle 2015). Recognizing tribal knowledge, leadership and management at this juncture allows forward movement at multiple levels. Fortunately, in the face of the changing climate, many ecologists, fire scientists and policy makers, Native and non-Native alike have turned to indigenous knowledge and management practices with renewed interest and optimism in the hope that they may provide a much needed path towards both adaptation and reducing emissions 18(Williams and Hardison 2013, Martinez 2011, Raygorodetsky 2011, Vinyeta and Lynn 2013, Whyte 2013, Wildcat 2009).

In particular there is increasing recognition of the importance of indigenous burning as an ecosystem component and restoration technique (Arno 1985, Lewis 1982, Mason et al. 2012, Kimmerer and Lake 2001). Many Western scientists and practitioners note that Native management practices allow for multi-species management, landscape patchiness, and the abundance of important species (see e.g. McGregor 2008, Smith and Sharp 2012, Whyte 2013, Willliams and Hardison 2013, Eriksen and Hankins 2014). In the face of the ecological threat of climate change there has been a heightened understanding of the value of indigenous traditional ecological knowledge regarding the use of fire by Western science practitioners, academic institutions and Federal and State land management agencies (see e.g. Agrawal 2002, NRCS/Native Practices Work Group 2010, Ross et al. 2010, Whyte 2013, Huffman 2014). Indeed, tribal management techniques are often the most effective mechanism to achieve many aspects of public land management desired by all agencies. Especially in the face of climate change, enabling tribes’ abilities to use traditional management techniques may be the best way for agencies to achieve their own goals on issues as diverse as protection of the wildland/urban interface, providing habitats for fish, wildlife, and plants, combating incursion by invasive species, and supporting local economies. This is so not only because tribes have proven techniques for maintaining ecological conditions in the face of intensive fuel loading and past wildfire suppression; tribes frequently also have less bureaucratic structures than other agencies. Tribes have existing authorities for many management actions under shared jurisdiction within existing Federal trust responsibilities that ought to be more fully implemented (Lake and Long 2014; Norgaard 2014b).


This assessment takes a multidimensional approach to evaluating the vulnerabilities that important traditional foods and cultural use species, Karuk tribal programs and tribal management authority may face in light of the increased frequency of high severity wildfire. This approach is illustrated by the notion that fire is medicine, that fire is a component of traditional ecological knowledge and that humans are ecosystem components (see Wells 2014).

Fire is Medicine


Kids picking up tan oak acorns in 2016 to process and eat. This forest burned in 2013. Photo: Stormy Staats, KSMC

This document works from the starting point that fire is necessary for the landscape to thrive. Karuk use of fire has been central to the evolution of the flora and fauna of the mid- Klamath ecosystem (Anderson 2005, Lake 2007 and 2013, Lake et al. 2010, Skinner et al. 2006). Fire is especially important for restoring grasslands for elk, managing for food sources including tan and black oak acorns, maintaining quality basketry materials, producing smoke that can shade the river for fish, and more. Karuk fire regimes generate pyrodiversity on the landscape by extending the season of burn and shortening fire return intervals. The multitude of foods, materials and other products that come from Karuk environments are in turn evidence of the profound diversity of fire regimes that are required to maintain relationships with hundreds of animal, plant, and mushroom species (Lake 2007 and 2013, Anderson and Lake 2013). As Karuk Director of Natural Resources Leaf Hillman puts it, “Fire is a cultural resource.”

Fire and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Despite its central importance for both ecosystem and community well-being, Karuk traditional knowledge regarding the use of fire is at risk of decline due to factors ranging from the dynamics of forced assimilation and lack of acknowledgement by non-Native land management agencies, to insufficient tribal management capacity and even the extent of ecological changes in ecosystems themselves (see Huffman 2013 and 2014). Maintaining Karuk traditional knowledge requires the practice of cultural management. Traditional knowledge is a living system that is enacted and carried on thorough active ongoing management. Land management is a central expression and affirmation of Karuk culture, identity, spirituality and mental and physical health (Lake et al. 2010).

Humans as Ecosystem Components

Not only is climate change the result of human activity, humans are integral components of the Klamath ecosystem. Humans have shaped the ecology, fire behavior and species composition of Karuk ancestral territory through tribal traditional management, and since 1910, through the activities of the US Forest Service (Crawford et al. 2015). Increasing fire severity is due to a combination of the changes in temperature and precipitation described above and the fact that fire suppression in the Klamath Mountains has decreased fire return intervals, resulting in increased fuel loads and fire severities for many forested riparian zones (Lake 2007, Skinner 1995, Skinner 2003, Skinner et al. 2006). That humans are ecosystem components matters for other reasons as well. When wildfires occur they are the subject of additional management actions, usually some form of fire suppression. And long after fires have ceased to burn, management actions such as re-seeding, sediment control, road building and salvage logging may occur. Understanding climate-induced vulnerabilities for particular species therefore requires an interdisciplinary approach that incorporates biological and fire science with sociological understanding of human factors. Discussions of habitat zones and species profiles reflect this intersectional dimension to vulnerability. For each species of focus we address how cultural burning benefits the species (see example of Spring Chinook Salmon in Table 1).


Secondly, we address how species may be impacted during a high severity fire event, during the immediate aftermath (roughly 24 months) and long term. (See Table 2).


Third, the vulnerabilities faced by the Karuk Tribe in the context of high severity wildfire do not occur in a vacuum. These vulnerabilities must be understood in the context of existing susceptibilities, as well as the past, present and future management actions of Tribal and non-Tribal land managers. Not only does high severity wildfire hold the potential to negatively affect some species more than others for biological reasons, species with already compromised ecological niches that may have more difficulty in adapting will be at greater risk in the event of large scale, high severity fires ( USFS FEIS for species profiles). Furthermore, past management actions such as logging, road building or fire suppression interact with fire events to influence the level of eco-cultural vulnerability, as do management actions taking during a fire and those that may follow in the long term. As such, our analysis also considers how past management actions, management actions taken during a high intensity wildfire event, and those that may come in the future may create vulnerabilities for a given species (see example in Table 3).


The above tables illustrate our intersectional approach with respect to vulnerabilities of specific species. Vulnerabilities to program capacity and tribal management authority follow the same format.


Chapter One of this assessment provides general context on the Karuk Tribe, including location, size, political status and infrastructural context. This chapter then describes general challenges of climate change within Karuk ancestral territory and homelands (beyond wildfire) and their health, economic and social consequences. Chapter Two gives a more detailed discussion of the complexity of fire as both medicine and traditional practice on the one hand, and a potentially dangerous force in light of changing patterns of fire behavior due to climate change on the other. This chapter engages centrally with the notion that humans are ecosystem components and that climate change is not happening in isolation of other failing non-Native management actions affecting Karuk foods, programs and management authority. Chapter Three examines how increasing high severity fire creates vulnerabilities for traditional foods and culturally important species. The discussion centers on six different habitat zones, each followed by a series of profiles on how high severity fire creates vulnerabilities for specific species within that habitat type.

Chapter Four examines how high severity fire creates vulnerabilities to tribal program capacity at three time scales: during high intensity fires, immediately following, and over the long term. Specific detail is provided for a number of programs within the Karuk Department of Natural Resources and for the Health Program. Chapter Five details vulnerabilities to tribal management authority in the face of high severity fires. This chapter examines the pre-fire jurisdictional context of the Karuk Tribe and the pre-fire management actions of federal agencies that influence tribal management authority.

Chapter Five then considers how interruptions to the practice of traditional knowledge, the crisis management orientation to fires, shifting jurisdictional terrain, and the focus and interest in the Klamath region by non-Native practitioners each shapes vulnerabilities related to the increasing frequency of high severity fire. We examine these issues at three temporal scales (during fires, immediately afterwards and long term).

Climate change poses a threat not only to the Klamath ecosystem, but also to Karuk culture, which is intimately intertwined with the presence, use and management of cultural use species (Karuk Tribe 2010, Lake et al. 2010, Norgaard 2005). While a complete Climate Adaptation Plan is needed, the conclusion points to preliminary recommendations based on this assessment. Restoring fire processes and function is about restoring the human responsibility to other species. In the context of climate change, Karuk tribal knowledge and management principles regarding the use of fire can be utilized to reduce the likelihood of high severity fires and thereby protect public as well as tribal trust resources (Norgaard 2014).

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