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The Native Science Field Center Fellows from BCC and Browning High school’s agriculture and horticulture classes are assisting the Piikani Lodge Health Institute to build snow fences

Blackfeet Nation is more than familiar with the power of the winter’s winds and snow. Now that power is being used to fight late season drought. The Piikani Lodge Health Institute (PLHI) is utilizing snow fences as a tool to create snow deposits that act as water reservoirs. PLHI, an Amskapi Piikani founded and led local nonprofit, continues to work toward job creation and training in areas of importance to community members. This is one such project.

Typically snow fences are known for being used to keep snow from drifting across roads, but the snow they pile up has valuable benefits as water storage. The key is that the large snowpack slowly melts. This slow, concentrated melting of the snowpack allows the water to recharge the groundwater instead of melting rapidly, running off, or evaporating off. So, placing snow fencing in targeted areas, like near the large pothole wetlands or within grasslands on the Blackfeet Nation, can strategically recharge the surface and groundwater for ecological and economic purposes. Fences designed and placed in this way can also support greater soil water infiltration in the winter and spring, and support more robust plant growth downwind in intentional snow catchment areas.

“Blackfeet Country is the perfect place to study snow fences. We live in one of the windiest places in the state, but here is a way we can capture the snow water using that wind. It’s a way to store our water resources, and it’s important for the rest of Montana too. We are the frontline…at the headwaters. This is an opportunity to store the water, let it infiltrate into the ground where it’s held longer for later season use,” said Tyrell Fenner, on-the-ground-lead for the PLHI project.

That restored groundwater not only keeps the soil moist for our native grasslands, it also maintains the wetlands that are important for our wildlife and as a water source for cattle. Just as important, the groundwater steadily recharges the creeks and rivers even after the first big snow melt flushes them for a few months. This means snow fences in the Blackfeet Nation can help keep water levels up and flowing later in the season for the rest of the state downstream.

The Native Science Field Center Fellows from BCC and Browning High school’s agriculture and horticulture classes helped PLHI build snow fences on both campuses. Some of these fences will be fully wood frame; some will incorporate reinforced plastic snow fence netting; and some are primarily based in using willow (oo tsee bess).

The other project lead, Andrew Berger, landscape ecological designer with PLHI, explains that they are testing these different designs to “figure out what is most suitable for ranchers, and which holds snow and water most effectively...we want to see what can hold up to the wind and want something particularly easy to install.”

Berger and Fenner base these designs in prior research and will monitor the response in soil moisture and plant growth. They also use GIS mapping to see how existing snow fences across our landscape have affected water cycles, and where we could prioritize new fences.

“We look at old satellite imagery and can see when these wetlands historically dried up, and we see if we can keep water in them longer throughout the season,” explains Fenner.

This project comes from the Blackfeet Climate Adaptation Plan published in 2018 and developed by members of the Blackfeet Environmental Office, Piikani Lodge Health Institute, Center for Large Landscape Conservation, and many community partners and leaders.

In the Adaptation Plan it explains, “Higher temperatures, earlier snowmelt, decreasing summer precipitation and other climate change drivers will negatively impact irrigated land, grain production, livestock production, and pollinators, and these climate change drivers will also increase the probability for fire.”

The plan also cites data indicating a “decrease in both water quality and quantity as temperatures increase, snowpack levels decrease, snowpack melts earlier, precipitation patterns change, and late summer stream flows decrease.”

To address these issues, snow fences were initially identified, “for the prairie potholes to reduce loss of snow…and to ensure that downstream users have access to sufficient water flows and water quality.”

If you would like to visit the test sites for the snow fences or learn how PLHI can support you in designing and building snow fences on your property, you can reach out to Andrew Berger at aberger@piikanilodge.org or Tyrell Fenner at tfenner@piikanilodge.org.

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