Keeping a Detailed Record of the Changing Climate Could Save This Tribe’s Foodways

As fall arrives in Karuk country in the Klamath River Basin of Southern Oregon and Northern California, the nights grow cooler, and many families hunt for deer and elk and gather acorns, evergreen huckleberries, and tanoak mushrooms.

These traditional foods are key to food security on a family and community level, explains Lisa Hillman, a Karuk Tribe cultural practitioner and weaver. “Acorns and salmon are central to my culture, which is central to my identity,” says Hillman. “If you eat salmon and acorns, you don’t feel too full, you’re not hungry for a long time. It’s that feeling of not having any need for [any]thing . . . and you wonder, ‘Is it in my DNA?’”

And yet, many of these foods are in danger due to drought, wildfire, and other impacts of the rapidly accelerating climate crisis.

Today, Karuk people, almost 9,000 members and descendants, are fighting to revitalize the cultural foods in the area after more than a century of resource extraction and fire suppression, while dealing firsthand with the impacts of a climate that is becoming less conducive to food production and security.

This year, the skies cleared just in time for the opening day of deer hunting season in mid-September. But just four days prior, the air quality in the Klamath Basin communities topped 500 parts per million as several high-intensity forest fires burned throughout their territory, spurred by prolonged, historic drought and crowded forests thick with fuel. This type of fire negatively impacts the health of all species in the area and stifles summer activities and ceremonies. It is also extremely draining and defeating to endure year after year.

Kathy McCovey is a Karuk Tribal member with profound expertise about forests and Karuk food systems. She has been caring for Klamath Basin forests her whole life and says what she and others in her homeland are witnessing is unprecedented.

“We used to have rains that would start in September. And it would rain and rain and rain and then it would stall, and we’d have these really nice little misty spring rains, and then we’d have a summer,” she recalls. Now, the rains tend to arrive much later in the fall and peter out by early spring, making the conditions very dry even by June. Days when the temperature rises above 100 degrees were once rare in the region, but they have become increasingly common and weeks full of 90–100-degree days now occur as early as May.

Fire- and temperature-induced changes are severely impacting the quality and quantity of traditional Karuk foods.

McCovey says the region has also seen an increase in the number of days with an inversion layer, meaning wildfire smoke, dense with pollutants, becomes trapped near the ground by a layer of warmer air. “We’ve been 15 some-odd years caught in inversion layers for wildland fires, and that’s [had a] cumulative [impact] on the plants, the people, and the animals.”

Eight of the 10 largest wildfires in California’s history have burned in the last 10 years, and nearly every year the size of the fires have grown—as have the losses incurred by communities. Karuk territory has been no exception. In 2020, the Slater Fire devastated Happy Camp, the Karuk Tribal administrative headquarters, and more than 200 homes, many of which belonged to Tribal members. Family gathering areas were also burned severely.

Since August, the McCash Fire has been burning downriver, prompting evacuations. And by the end of the century, Karuk ancestral territory is expected to experience even more fire danger and warming trends with a projected 53 more days with highs over 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Kathy McCovey holds a sugarpine cone. (Photo courtesy of Megan Mucioki)

This has severe impacts on traditional Karuk foods. Fire- and temperature-induced changes are influencing the quality and quantity of forest and river foods, the timing of harvest for many wild foods, and the ability to harvest at all.

For almost 10 years, the authors have been part of a group of researchers from University of California, Berkeley and Frank Lake from the U.S. Forest Service who are working with the Karuk people to tackle these challenges. By integrating Karuk knowledge and methods in forestry and ecology, this collective aims to identify and track the impact of climate change and management on the plants and animals used by tribal members for food and fiber.

Together, U.C. Berkeley researchers and the Karuk Department of Natural Resources have created management monitoring methods to systematically measure and track the impact of climate change and Karuk restoration efforts in gathering areas.

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