Tribal, Park Service, and University Partnership Studying Glacier Parks Ice Patches

They’re not glaciers, and they’re not snow. They’re high-alpine ice patches, and as they melt, they reveal the history of the landscape. A partnership with the Park Service, several university professors, and northwest Montana tribes is using cutting edge technology and traditional knowledge to find and preserve items revealed by the melting ice patches.

Finding these bones, tools, or pieces of wood are telling the story of the past and mapping out a plan for the future in the face of a changing climate.

Ice patches are accumulations of ice and snow in alpine and sub-alpine areas that have been stable for thousands of years but have been melting and receding as the climate changes. Dr. Craig Michael Lee of the University of Colorado said most of what they’ve found in Glacier Park is ecological, “by radiocarbon dating, by actually gauging the age, scientifically of each one of these specimens that we encounter, it tells us what the past environment was like.” Lee said. “It tells us, for instance that the high country had bison in it, the bison weren’t an unusual element of the high country.”

Lee said in Yellowstone National Park an ice patch revealed a 10,300-year-old tool that had been used for hunting, “it indicated that not only was there very ancient ice present here, but that that ancient ice that had contained artifacts for the last 10,000 years had melted and dumped this material out into the fore field in front of this particular stable ice patch.”

Lee said finding that there were bison and people in the high country are “discoveries” to the scientist, but not to their tribal partners.

Ira Matt runs the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Preservation Department.

“Our oral histories include both the living histories of the tribes, knowledge of the people that traveled the trails, the way that the alpine resources were utilized, the animals were hunted, and we also have a lot of oral histories pertaining to how things were established through our cultural world view,” Matt said.

“We re-locate an item whereas other people might discover it,” Matt said. “working together, we re-locate items, but what we might be discovering is new information that can really help us understand what’s going on with climate change; both from a paleo-ecological and the cultural perspectives.” Matt said for the tribe it’s a re-connection with an area that in many ways was cut off from the people when Glacier became a park and had certain restrictions placed on it.

Michael Durglo Senior also works with the Preservation office. He said both the Blackfeet and CSKT got involved with this project to make sure items found of important Tribal significance were properly handled.

“You got three, four tribes involved in that project, and each tribe’s got their own tradition, their own language, their own customs,” Durglo said.

Matt said the tribes, researchers and park service have developed a protocol to guide the handling of items uncovered in the ice, “when we’re out there, if we do come across an item, it doesn’t require collection and being taken from the site location and being brought down and put on display before it’s understood that it’s cultural and it’s sacred and it’s not supposed to be treated that way.”  Matt said for example burial items aren’t necessarily supposed to be handled nor have photographs taken of them.

This partnership among the Tribes, Park Service, and Universities recently received the 2012 Partners in Conservation Award from the U-S Department of the Interior.

Cultural Specialist Pei Lin Yu with the Park Service says ice patch research spans several national parks.

“The driving question behind this project was trying to figure out how our landscapes are changing with regard to climate change, and in particular, ice patches,” Yu said they’re asking how the ice patches are melting and receding, if they’re being replenished by the winter snowfall, or are they growing smaller, “and as they do so, is the melting exposing delicate, perishable, cultural or natural items that are pretty much relics of the past that have been kept in perfect preservation up until now.”

Yu said this partnership at Glacier Park stands out because the tribes aren’t being consulted as an afterthought, but have been involved since the beginning.

Matt said they’re balancing the different cultural, research, preservation and educational goals.

“One of the great products that’s going to come out of this are these protocols in this partnership that are kind of setting the bar for future research standards where, we’re at the point now where we’re not only getting everybody at the table for these process, but everybody is coming out comfortable with the outcome. People’s voices are not only being heard, but they’re being incorporated,” Matt said.

The first field season in Glacier was in 2010, weather dependent they’ll head back up into the mountaintops this spring or summer.

The Salish Kootenai College produced a video about the project, available to view on YouTube.

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