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Northern Plains Drought Update & Outlook - Tribal Webinar: May 26, 2021

Event Date
May 26, 2021
Event Time
10:00 am - 11:00 am

Drought in the Northern Plains continues to worsen, and widespread impacts are being felt, including impacts on tribal lands in the region. In order to provide up-to-date information on the drought and its impacts, and associated resources for tribal nations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have partnered to host a drought webinar series this summer specifically for the tribal nations in the Northern Plains.

The first Northern Plains Drought Update & Outlook Tribal Webinar in this series included an update on the current drought situation and outlook for the summer, an overview of drought impacts and actions being taken on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North and South Dakota, and an update on the current wildfire situation and coordination efforts.



Welcome to the Northern Plains Drought Update and Outlook Tribal Webinar

Speaker: Stefan Tangen, North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC)



Current Conditions and Outlook

Speaker: Dr. Crystal Stiles, High Plains Regional Climate Center

  • Drought began to develop in the Northern Plains late last spring and intensified throughout the fall and winter (uncommon). We went into spring with depleted soil moisture and very little snow on the ground to melt and recharge the soil.
  • Spring has been warm and dry, and precipitation deficits continue to mount.
  • North Dakota is experiencing exceptional drought (D4), with widespread extreme drought (D3) across the Dakotas and Montana. Visit the Tribal Nations page for the U.S. Drought Monitor overlaid with the reservation outlines in the Northern Plains. 
  • Impacts thus far: Poor pasture and rangeland conditions (71% of North Dakota poor to very poor; 50% of Montana, 47% of South Dakota), hay shortage, culling of herds, lack of water availability for livestock, and numerous wildfires.
  • Short-term outlook: Some potential for precipitation over the next week could be helpful, but it will not make a huge difference unless there is a lot of rain.
  • Summer outlook (June, July, August): Warm and dry conditions are expected in the Northern Plains; drought is expected to persist. 



Wildfire Update and Coordination

Speaker: David Martin, Bureau of Indian of Affairs (BIA), Great Plains Region

  • In the Great Plains region, BIA has 13 reservations where they manage wildfire, covering 17 million acres of ground. In a non-drought year, there are two fire seasons (spring and fall). During drought years, like this year, there is a summer fire season. 
  • As of today, 630+ fires and 17,000 acres have burned. This parallels the 2012 fire season, which was the worst fire season. We are drier this year, but on par with the number of fires and acres burned. The most recent fire over 1,000 acres was the Little Swallow Fire in May 2021 (Fort Berthold). 
  • Currently, multiple tribal nations are in extreme to exceptional drought (D3-D4): Fort Berthold, Turtle Mountain, Fort Totten, Standing Rock, and Cheyenne River.
  • The biggest concern is dry lightning in July and August. BIA has been monitoring these conditions for over a year now and preparing.
  • BIA response: When the region is in drought, BIA communicates drought levels each week to partners across the Great Plains region. This information is then communicated to local fire departments. Then, they plan, coordinate, and implement their wildfire response plans (e.g., fire lines on the road).

Speaker: Adam Wolf, BIA Rocky Mountain Region (Fort Peck)

  • Fort Peck has had 90 fires since January 2021, all caused by humans.
  • So far, this region has been getting some moisture but in the long run, the ground will dry out from the winds and that could increase the fuel. In July, we are expecting a lot of fires.
  • Nationally, BIA has requested long-term severity for the Fort Peck area, and this was approved. This will help funding and bringing in resources to cover this area and surrounding neighbors/cooperators. We have been monitoring this area for a while now as well.



Drought Impacts on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

Speaker: Doug Crow-Ghost, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Water Administrator, Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance Chairman

  • The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe spans 2.3 million acres, and a lot of acreage is undisturbed (grasslands). There are some irrigation projects on the lands as well. 
  • Water levels are very low right now near Lake Oahe (managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), and the low water levels can cause issues like erosion, mudflats, and damage to adjacent infrastructure. This also promotes more looting of wildlife in illegal areas (wildlife tends to congregate near water resources during drought). In addition, a lack of water can kill wildlife like birds and fish.
  • Wildfire is also an issue right now. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has a fire ban in place, which can cause difficulties for traditional ceremonies that require fire (e.g., sweat lodge). They are trying to be more cautious with ceremonies, like having water or a fire extinguisher available.
  • To address the drought conditions, the Tribe put proclamations for burn bans in place, and they are limiting the use of water for irrigation and overall water use. The Tribe is also developing a water management plan with funding from BIA.
  • It’s important for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to work together with other tribes and the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance to understand what can be done, and working with others like NOAA and NIDIS that are willing to help the tribes.



Open Discussion




  • This is the first webinar in a series that will focus on drought. The next webinar will be in late June, and more information will be sent out soon.


Key Partners

This webinar was organized by the NOAA National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), USGS North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) Regional Climate Services, High Plains Regional Climate Center, and USDA Northern Plains Climate Hub.