Native Communities Feel The Heat Of Climate Change In The Southwest

Hopi officials’ moves to impound Navajo-owned sheep goes beyond a mere tribal dispute over grazing land to reveal how acutely climate change is impacting Native traditions and ways of life in the American Southwest.

Navajo Coal Plant
This Sept. 4, 2011, file photo shows the main plant facility at the Navajo Generating Station, as seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz.  Photo: Ross D. Franklin/AP

PINON, Arizona — Sheep have been an integral part of the lives of generations of Diné, providing food and wool to those living in relative isolation atop the Black Mesa in the remote north-central part of the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

However, the lives and livelihoods of the Forest Lake Chapter of the Navajo Nation were disrupted in October, when reports allege that federal SWAT teams set up roadblocks as helicopters and drones circled above the fields of shepherds while Hopi rangers and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents impounded more than 300 of the Diné shepherds’ sheep.

The Hopi Tribe Department of Natural Resources conducted its annual livestock inventory in August. Citations were issued to those who had too many sheep, and they were given 60 days to remove any livestock in excess of the permit allowance. Five-day notices were posted, and written notices were issued by the Hopi Resource Enforcement Services to provide those with violations the opportunity to come into compliance voluntarily before the sheep were impounded.

The Hopi said in an Oct. 31 press release the impoundments were being carried out “equally for and between” the Hopi and Navajo. “Despite the misinformation being spread via the social media, there is no threat of violence by the Hopi Tribe against the Navajo and Hopi residents of Hopi Partitioned Lands,” the statement read.

The Hopi also called upon the Navajo to join together in protecting their sacred lands through “the continued and ongoing enforcement of the reasonable grazing regulations. It is in the best interest of all live stock (sic) owners that we work together to preserve the natural resources for the benefit of all.”

“Neither the BIA nor the Hopi Tribe have drones, and no drones from any source have been used,” Nedra Darling, the BIA’s director of Public Affairs, told MintPress News.

Darling explained that the Hopi Tribe grants livestock permits to individuals with valid home site leases or agreements. These permits list the permitted number of livestock based on range land studies, which determine the livestock volume the land is capable of sustaining each year.

“Residents that were in violation of the number of permitted animals were given notice, and when they failed to correct the situation, the Hopi Tribal Rangers impounded the animals that were above and beyond the number permitted to individuals,” Darling said.

One resident of the Navajo community, who spoke to MintPress on condition of anonymity, said, “The rangers came in the middle of ceremony. They came early in the morning, when people are asleep. They started taking sheep at gunpoint. These families depend on the sheep for food and wool for weaving. It’s how they make their living. Taking them away is destroying elders. They have nowhere else to go.”

The source told MintPress that it’s commonly believed that the Peabody Coal Mine wants to expand operations to mine the entire area, and that’s what’s behind the recent flock removal push.

“Peabody is lighting up most of the state with electricity, but these Navajo shepherds are not given electricity or running water,” the source said.

Peabody Coal did not respond to questions from MintPress about expansion plans on the mesa or why the Navajo families living on the Hopi Partitioned Lands (HPL) were not receiving electricity. The website states that, “Peabody is currently pursuing coal-related opportunities with both tribes that would develop new markets, creating high-paying jobs and economic development opportunities for the tribes.”

Peabody owns four mines in the Southwest: two in Arizona and two in New Mexico. The Kayenta Mine in Arizona, and the Lee Ranch Mine and El Segundo Mine in New Mexico are currently in operation. Prior to suspending operations in 2005, the Black Mesa Mine in Arizona had operated for 30 years. The Kayenta Mine is located on both Hopi and Navajo lands on the Black Mesa highland plateau in northeast Arizona.

Through lease agreements with the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, the mine supplies about 7.5 million tons of low-sulfur thermal coal annually to Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona. It also transports coal 80 miles to an electrical generating station that generates more than 2,250 megawatts for businesses and households across the Southwest.

“There is no one to speak up for the shepherds,” the Navajo community member said. “Navajo services are blocked to these people. It has to go through the Hopi, yet these families are voting members of our elections and can’t even help them.”

Health and environmental concerns have not been addressed since “the Peabody Black Mesa Mine destroyed everything,” the source continued. “Water has been depleted. The mine sucked the pure aquifer and flushed tons of coal for so many years before shutting down. The air in the Grand Canyon is yellow from emissions.”

And every year the Hopi allow fewer livestock to graze, the source added.


The power of a fence

Navajo Sheep 2A Churro sheep, covered in thick, flowing woolen hair, stands in front of a door in a farm yard. The Diné have raised this hearty breed of sheep for hundreds of years, but now face conflicts with the Hopi Tribe over land use. Photo: Jean/Flickr

The HPL were split by barbed wire fencing after the U.S. government passed the 1974 Navajo and Hopi Settlement Act that designated nearly a million acres of shared land in northern Arizona as HPL and Navajo Partitioned Lands (NPL).

The hardy Churro breed of sheep have flourished in the area since being introduced there around the turn of the 17th century — well before any federal land acts had been settled. Bleating and baaing, the herds move over the sandy ground, the younger following the older, who know where to go to find plants to graze on.

Irene Begaye, grazing representative for the Navajo Forest Lake chapter, said, “We have families still residing on the HPL side. Some families relocated and some still on the HPL side have livestock. There’s been an agreement for 75 years, families that wanted to remain signed the accommodation agreement issued by the Hopi Tribe according to vegetation available to graze. They do this study every year. It may have a huge effect or remain the same year to year.”

There are also sheep, horses and cattle on the NPL side. While the Hopi issue permits, dictate the limits, and impound sheep in excess of those limits, the Navajo do not, Begaye told MintPress.

“But there’s been overgrazing here, too, even though there’s no permitting process,” she said. “We’ve been discussing ridding the land of livestock for five years just to let the land rehabilitate, especially the horses and the cattle.”

Begaye said there’s been excessive drought in the Southwest for more than a decade, and these conditions are expected to worsen as climate change intensifies. Every summer the rains are less, and the two feet of snow once common in winter no longer fall. Native communities that have lived in the region for centuries are becoming acutely aware of how long-term environmental changes affect cultural practices.

In the minutes of the Navajo Black Mesa Chapter meeting on Nov. 15, the Navajo council listed concerns for Navajo families living in HPL:

-Three families are involved and over 300 heads were impounded;

-The families received notices in August 2014 to enforce limited sheep units;

-30 Hopi officers showed up at 5:30 a.m. to these homes and harassed the families. They only talked to permit holders and if interrupted by others, they are detained. These families felt discriminated.

The minutes reflected a sense that the actions were “like military operations.” Seventy-five people went to Window Rock to meet with the Navajo Hopi Land Commission in October. A meeting was scheduled for Nov. 26 and a request made for a congressional hearing and investigation by federal mitigation for December. So far, however, there’s been no movement on the congressional hearing, as the tribes are continuing to work to resolve this matter internally.

The minutes also state that 2,800 sheep units are allowed on HPL, and 1,900 of these units are currently owned by Navajo people.


Native communities feel the impact of climate change

Navajo SheepA closeup photo of a Churro ram, covered in thick fluffy wool and with two curving horns. A conflict over grazing rights for the sheep of the Navajo Nation has shed light on the damage Native Americans have already suffered from climate change.  Photo: Jean/Flickr

The Oct. 31 Hopi press release noted that the Southwest has been facing severe drought conditions. Monthly monitoring showed severe deterioration of Hopi lands due to overgrazing in certain areas for the past five years. The July through September 2014 Drought Status Report documented the general conditions to be poor to fair, and rain arrived late and was only spotty.

“The warm season annual grasses that are located in areas that did not receive rain did not respond to growth in maturity and the normal seeding stages. Only old growth vegetation is present,” the statement said.

Rising temperatures and weather changes, like draught, heavily impact Native communities, which often cannot relocate easily and suffer water shortages. The climate of the Southwest has steadily warmed over the past century, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The average annual temperature has increased by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit and is projected to rise 2.5 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

Further, the consequences of climate change disproportionately affect American Indians and Alaska Natives, compared to non-Natives, according to the 2010 report “Tribal Climate Change Efforts in Arizona and New Mexico.” The report, prepared by Susan Wotkyns of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University, notes:

Native Alaskan villages, for example, are already experiencing acute and rapid changes, such as warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, and more frequent and extreme weather events. Some villages, such as Newtok, are leaving the villages that have been their traditional homes and re-establishing their communities on higher ground. These are some of the first human populations to experience direct consequences of climate change.

The University of Arizona’s monthly Southwest Climate Outlook reports show that many parts of Arizona and New Mexico received no rain during the dry month of November. Rain levels were low in December, and it was the warmest month in Arizona on record.

Water from snowmelt was low across both states, ranging from 0 to 50 percent of the average because of high temperatures and below-average snowfall. In October the reservoir stored 45 percent of capacity in Arizona, compared to the previous year’s 47 percent.

The monsoon and tropical storm season brought rainfall close to or above average across Arizona and New Mexico, “but these intense storms provided limited long-term drought relief, with widespread areas well below-average over the past 12 to 36 months The Four Corners region, northeast New Mexico, and portions of southern Arizona experienced the largest deficits in the past 12 months,” according to the Southwest Climate Outlook in December.

Likewise, the report from the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals states:

The southwest is projected to become warmer and drier. Warming is already occurring faster in the southwest than in most other parts of the country, and the region faces many challenges including an increasing probability of drought, changes in snowpack, earlier spring snowmelt, and decreases in river flows.

Water supplies are projected to become increasingly scarce in the future.

“Impacts on the landscape are likely to be substantial, caused by factors such as changes in temperature and precipitation, wildfire, invasive species, and pests. Increased frequency and changes to timing of flooding will increase risks to people, ecosystems and infrastructure,” the report states.

The Hopi Tribe is currently in the process of updating their drought mitigation plan. Their goals are to obtain a better understanding of major drought vulnerabilities, increase their knowledge of major adaptation strategies, and develop a plan that is more responsive and useful for responding to drought.