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Tuesday, November 6, 2018

HERS student studies the environmental impacts of bison and fire on the prairie

Willow Kipp
     Willow Kipp understands that becoming well informed about Native American and environmental policies is essential to be a successful advocate for her community, “instead of being reactive to the rapidly changing governments and climate change.” With this goal in mind, Willow wanted to conduct further research on environmental issues, so she decided to attend the 2018 Haskell Environmental Research Studies (HERS) Summer Program supported by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas. 
     The HERS program, housed at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence KS, “provides the platform for various stages of support for programs of interest to American Indian/Alaska native communities, most recently focused on the effects of climate change on indigenous communities.” The program allows students to conduct independent research and then present their findings at a national convention. Willow selected a project that allowed her to study the important role bison and fire play in sustaining the biodiversity of the Blackfeet Reservation's prairie. She titled her project Bison, Fire, Nitsitapii: Utilizing Innii (Bison) and Controlled burns to Maintain Short-Mixed Grass Prairie Biodiversity within the Blackfeet Nation.
     She described her research as follows: "Blackfeet people have actively managed the short-mixed grass prairie through bison herd management and controlled burns for hundreds of years.... Bison are a keystone species on the Blackfeet Reservation’s short-mixed grass prairie which is located in the Rocky Mountain Plains Region." Bison and controlled burns restore the prairie's ecological growth succession cycle (EGSC) and enhance its biodiversity. The bison's grazing habits and the bison's fur, chips, urine and wallows promote growth and productivity of the prairie's indigenous plants. Thus,"highlighting bison as caretakers of the land." Exercising a similar function,"controlled burns regenerate the ecological growth succession cycle too and reduce the intensity and destructiveness of wild fires" by burning the vegetation that can fuel them. Bison also "graze on burned sites which is one way bison and fire" work together to maintain the biodiversity within the Blackfeet Reservation's short-mixed grass prairie. Willow concluded, "I found that when both bison and fire are being actively managed, the prairie is in its healthiest state and biodiversity is sustained.” This past summer, Willow presented her research during a poster session at the University Corporation of Atmospheric Research (UCAR) 2018 Conference held in Boulder, CO.
Willow's poster describing her HERS research
 that she presented at UCAR
    When she described her HERS experience, Willow said the program provided her with a great opportunity to conduct "in depth research on a topic of interest to me and my community.” She added that it also allowed her to enhance her writing skills. She mentioned the best and most eye opening experience came when the 2018 HERS cohort visited the Konza Prairie Biological Station. During the visit, Willow had the opportunity to personally observe bison, conduct field research, and use the data collected for her final project.  In addition, she said the HERS program allowed her to “create a scholarly project documenting ancient tribal practices as a current and relevant necessity of today.”
    Willow is Shoshone-Bannock from Fort Hall, ID and Blackfeet from Browning MT.  She earned her bachelor's and associate's degree in Native American Studies (NAS) and Environmental Studies (ENST) from the University of Montana in Missoula MT. In addition to her studies, Willow chaired several campus wide events. She also was a member of the Sacred Roots Language Society, and she won the University of Montana's Student Diversity and Leadership Award. As for her future plans, Willow wants to attend law school and pursue a career in Tribal/criminal law working for the Blackfeet or Shoshone/Bannock tribes.

Workforce Development, Education and Outreach funding for the HERS program is provided by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas. The award's workforce development and educational objectives are designed to enhance STEM education in Kansas by supporting activities that will lead to an expanded STEM workforce or prepare a new generation for STEM careers in the areas of aquatic, plant and soil microbiome environments and ecological systems.