Benefits and Challenges of Tribal Natural Resource Management Agencies
~ Chase Voirin

            Many Native American tribes across the

U.S. have established natural resource

management agencies that are integrated

within their tribal governments. Establishing

these programs has led to many benefits for

tribes, including but not limited to, increased

tribal sovereignty over natural resource management, increased federal funding towards natural resource goals, and greater collaboration with state and federal natural resource agencies to accomplish work. While natural resource programs are cast across a broad range of subjects, I refer mainly to fish, wildlife, and vegetation resources in this article. These agencies have also played an integral role, in some cases, in maintaining the link between tribal culture and the fish, wildlife, and vegetation resources that play roles in its existence. In fact, some tribal natural resource management programs have integrated cultural values into the way they manage those resources. Nonetheless, tribal natural resource management agencies continue to thrive amid a suite of challenges, including human population increases that are enveloping tribal lands, debatable loss of cultural ties to natural resources, important resource (i.e., fish, wildlife, and vegetation) population declines on tribal lands, and climate change.

            One of the main benefits of having a tribal natural resource management agency is that it gives tribe’s a voice and representation to inform their tribal members and non-tribal entities as to the state of the natural resources that exist on tribal lands. For example, many tribes take surveys and inventory of fish, wildlife, and vegetation and then convey those findings to their tribal members and non-tribal entities. This, in turn, allows the agency to generate management strategies that they can pass along to rest of the tribal government and its citizens. This also allows tribes to share data and information with non-tribal entities, often state and federal agencies, that may be of interest to those entities. And since fish, wildlife, and vegetation do not recognize borders, the data on these resources could be incredibly important to non-tribal entities.

            Another benefit of having an established tribal natural resource management agency is that it can increase funding and collaboration from non-tribal entities, and within tribal governments and citizens. For example, several of the survey results for fish, wildlife, and vegetation are often used to justify sustained or additional funding and resources from tribal governments or non-tribal entities. For example, invasive and noxious weeds have become an increasing issue across several tribal reservation lands, and survey results of these species have become more important in obtaining tribal and federal funding to combat these species and restore native vegetation ecosystems. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is often tasked with working closely with tribal natural resource agencies to provide insight and access to resources and funding.

            A major benefit associated with the establishment of tribal natural resource management agencies has been the sovereignty it has given tribes over their natural resources. These days, even tribes who have relatively smaller amounts of reservation lands administer natural resource programs, usually as a part of their tribal governments. These programs give tribes a voice and put tribes in the driver’s seat to determine the best management strategies for their resources and ecosystems. Functioning tribal programs also show legitimacy to their tribal members and non-tribal entities, especially if they’ve developed surveys and management protocols that are effective and broadly acceptable by tribal members. Tribal natural resources management agencies have learned to share in the strength and collaboration with each other, and this is reflected in long-standing entities such as the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society. These platforms allow tribes to build their sovereignty together and share insight that will be mutually beneficial moving forward.

            Some of the main challenges tribal natural resource management agencies face are a lack of adequate funding and a low amount of staff. In some cases, tribal natural resource agencies are tasked with managing a wide range of resources and areas, and being understaffed does not help their cause. Additionally, tribes are too often tasked with competing against each other for precious federal dollars, such as Tribal Wildlife Grants, that are often slashed depending on what political party holds the office at the federal level. Additionally, tribes sometimes must fight for miniscule funding from their own tribal governments, who may have a suite of other challenges to fund and mitigate that take precedence over natural resources on a reservation. Some tribes have tried to supplement funding through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses to tribal and non-tribal members, as well as other licensure sources. But this is often not enough to sustain an entire tribal natural resource management agency alone. Other challenges that are arguably more minor, yet still worth mentioning are the lack of qualified tribal workers to fill positions within tribal natural resource management agencies, as well as a growing disinterest in the outdoors and general knowledge of the ecosystem by tribal members that correlates to the loss of culture. However, each tribe is different and some tribes may only face one of these challenges, while others face them all.

            While there are growing challenges in some areas, one thing tribal natural resource management agencies have proven is the ability to persist among a changing landscape. There is arguably more awareness surrounding some tribal natural resource issues now than there has ever been. And while climate change may prove to be the biggest challenge of them all, tribal agencies are equipped to monitor the changes this challenge brings about better than at any point in history. Bringing these challenges to the forefront will in turn lead to more awareness and potentially more funding and mitigation efforts by a diverse set of stakeholders and entities. And since tribal culture is intimately tied to natural resources, it would only make sense that these agencies should be supported well into the future. And continuing to share each tribes’ successes and challenges on a broad platform can strengthen their resolve to make sure valued natural resources are available to future generations.