The Nez Perce are an iconic indigenous tribe of 3,500 individuals in the United States that journeyed from from the Pacific North West to the Great Plains in Montana following the great animal migrations.  They tracked buffalo across the plains, and would return to Clearwater River in Idaho for steelhead and salmon runs (CRITFC, 2017).  Tracking the lifestyle of these specific species was the main sustenance for the Nez Perce, and still plays a major role in the tribe's modern lifestyles even after they were placed onto a reservation in north central Idaho.  Temperatures throughout the past 20 years in Idaho have increased more than 1.5°F (Melillo, Richmond, and Lohe, 2014).  As temperatures continue to increase the Nez Perce will face greater and greater climate change risks and the associated impacts to those risks (Cochran et al., 2014).

The Nez Perce Flag features great Chief Joseph in the middle with the words Nez Perce Tribe above him and Treaty of 1855 below. The tribe is still attempting to settle land rights with the US government over the treaty, which has caused turmoil for both parties. 


The Nez Perce Reservation is colored dark green on this map, the lighter shade of green represents the land that was ceded to the US. The Colombia River Basin is dark tan


Western United States Temperature Increase 

The graph shows the change in temperature dating back to the early 20th century. As indicated on the graph it is clear that temperatures have been increasing in the western US over the past 40 years. 

southwest climate change 


The Nez Perce have two main climate change hazards. The first hazard is impacts to ecosystems and biodiversity (Clark & Harris, 2011).  Secondly, water resources have been negatively affected (Clark & Harris, 2011). 

    Ecosystems and Biodiversity 

  • Drought coupled with high summertime temperatures have enabled large forest dieback (IPCC, 2014).
  • Significant changes to composition and distribution of forest communities. 
  • An increase in the number of invasive plant (starthistle) and insect species (pine beetles).
  • Increase in wildfire intensity and severity
  • Change in habitat types for wildlife 
  • Loss of key timber species

This map depicts the projected water temperature rise for the remainder of the 21st century. The entire Clearwater River subbasin in Idaho is shown in red, which means that water temperatures are currently cold but recent data in the subbasin shows that temperatures have been warming. Warmer water temperatures will have adverse effects on local aquatic species. 


Mountain pine beetles burrow into trees where the feed on the cambium of the tree and lay their eggs until the trees die. Dead trees fuel forest fires. 


Water Resources

  • Droughts don't supply enough water to keep aquatic ecosystems healthy
  • Higher elevation winter snowline (IPCC, 2014)
  • Early spring peak stream flows  
  • Higher summer water temperatures 
  • Change in habitat types for fish species
  • Loss of non-irrigated farmland 

Exposure and Vulnerability

Damages to Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Ecosystems and biodiversity are vulnerable mainly because of drought and increased temperatures. Temperature increase and drought allow for pine beetles and starthistle to attack forests, which fuel wildfires. These fires make the Nez Perce more exposed and vulnerable. Elk and deer are among several staple foods for the Nez Perce and as populations decrease as a result of fires the tribe needs to discover different means of food production. Larger, more frequent fires inherently have a higher risk of property loss; human morbidity and mortality all increase as well (IPCC, 2014).  The IPCC (2014) states that air pollution resulting from wildfires is known to cause approximately 350,000 premature deaths per year worldwide (IPCC, 2014)

Water resource quality

The pristine cold water flowing through the Clearwater River has been an important part of their tribe throughout history.  The Nez Perce is facing water problems not only in the Clearwater River Sub-basin but also in the greater Columbia River Basin.  The Clearwater River sub-basin is a snow-dominated watershed, which means it relies heavily on long-term snow accumulation to keep the watershed healthy.  The combination of less winter snowfall and warmer temperatures early on in the spring has lead to earlier spring peak stream flows (Clark & Harris, 2011).  A normal snowpack would provide water to the river basin throughout the spring, but when the stream flow peaks to early in the season the groundwater is depleted from the area (Melillo, Richmond, & Yohe, 2014). 


The Nez Perce are heavily reliant on the local ecosystem for daily needs such as food and medicine. As the climate changes it will be vital for them to learn new ways of doing tasks that have become second nature to them. Without these forest and aquatic ecosystems the Nez Perce will lose a significant portion of the culture. Because of the tribes attachment to the land and their location makes them have a higher exposure to the climate change impacts of drought and wildfires as well as food shortages.


Climate change has direct effects on local economies. The majority of the Nez Perce's economy is made up of tourism/recreation and timber harvesting. With the Clearwater River slowly being degraded and key timber species, such as the Douglas fir disappearing into smoke the Nez Perce will have to find other ways to fuel their economy. 

Steelhead (pictured above) are a native fish species to the Nez Perce homeland. They thrive in cold clean water; water temperatures in the Columbia River Basin have increase by 5° over the past 10 years (Bernton, 2016). As temperatures increase water quality decreases, the combination of the two is detrimental to health of steelhead and other native species  


Wildfires have negative impacts to all aspects of the ecosystem. It displaces wildlife introduces bacteria to bodies of water (Dobos, Corsi, Schill, DuPont, & Quist, 2016)


Traditional salmon roast over an alder wood fire, marking the beginning of the seasons salmon and steelhead run. 

Robert Ice @Getty Images

The Nez Perce fish hatchery does not use concrete catchment ponds to raise fish but instead is set up to mimic the natural systems of local rivers.



The Nez Perce have noticed the negative impacts of climate change for nearly two decades now.  In 1996 they joined with three other tribes to create the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission (CRITFC) that focused on restoring the local aquatic ecosystems to ensure the succession of the species that has supported them for centuries. In 2011, the Nez Perce Tribe’s Water Resources Division (NPT WRD) sprung back into action and applied for a small, one year educational scholarship grant from the Model Forest Policy Program (MFPP). Using the MFPP resources and with help from the Climate Solutions University (CSU), NPT WRD put together a team, that included local and regional stakeholders to develop the Clearwater River Subbasin Adaptation.

The following goals are taken directly from the adaptation plan:

  • Create partnerships to research local effects of climate change on water resources, forestry, and the economy. 
  • Include climate change adaptation assessment data, goals, and objectives into local and regional planning documents. 
  • Affect a change in planning and zoning regulations along waterways and restore the 100- year floodplain. 
  • Protect and restore water quality and quantity for human health and anadromous fish. Manage wildfire risk.
  • Reduce and/or improve infrastructure in landslide-prone areas. 
  • Develop ecologically connected network of public and private lands to facilitate fish, wildlife and plant adaptation to climate change. (Ken Clark, 2011)

The adaption plan is still at work today seeing success specifically in aquatic ecosystems. The NPT WRD has created their own fish hatchery that uses traditional knowledge paired with new state-of-the-art technology to mimic the swift moving waters of Idaho's rivers (CRITFC, 2017). The hatchery not only helps maintain health fish populations in rivers but also provides a major economic impact to the tribal economy. 

Key Messages

  • The effects of climate change have been clear to the Nez Perce people for the past forty years. 
  • Their traditions of closely relying on the local environment may make adapting to climatic changes difficult. 
  • Wildfires and a changing aquatic ecosystems not only expose the Nez Perce to more physical risks of living in their geographic location but it also exposes them to aggregate risks to their tribal economy. 
  • The Nez Perce are facing the impacts of climate change head on by continually pushing for better adaptation plans similar to the Clearwater River Subbasin Adaptation Plan. 

Brielle Finer 

About the author: My name is Quinn Trainer, I'm from Ludlow, VT.  This website was made for my Adapting to Climate Change Course at St. Lawrence University.  My interest for the Nez Perce Tribe originated through my love of fly fishing.  While researching trout and other salmonid rivers in Idaho I stumbled upon the Clearwater River that runs through the Nez Perce Reservation.  I plan on moving to Wyoming after completing my Environmental Studies undergraduate degree at St. Lawrence University and I am excited to learn more about the tribe through first hand experiences on the water.   


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