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Blending Indigenous and western science: Quantifying cultural burning impacts in Karuk Aboriginal Territory

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The combined effects of Indigenous fire stewardship and lightning ignitions shaped historical fire regimes, landscape patterns, and available resources in many ecosystems globally. The resulting fire regimes created complex fire–vegetation dynamics that were further influenced by biophysical setting, disturbance history, and climate. While there is increasing recognition of Indigenous fire stewardship among western scientists and managers, the extent and purpose of cultural burning is generally absent from the landscape–fire modeling literature and our understanding of ecosystem processes and development. In collaboration with the Karuk Tribe Department of Natural Resources, we developed a transdisciplinary Monte Carlo simulation model of cultural ignition location, frequency, and timing to simulate spatially explicit cultural ignitions across a 264,399-ha landscape within Karuk Aboriginal Territory in northern California. Estimates of cultural ignition parameters were developed with Tribal members and knowledge holders using existing interviews, historical maps, ethnographies, recent ecological studies, contemporary maps, and generational knowledge. Spatial and temporal attributes of cultural burning were explicitly tied to the ecology of specific cultural resources, fuel receptivity, seasonal movement patterns, and spiritual practices. Prior to colonization, cultural burning practices were extensive across the study landscape with an estimated 6972 annual ignitions, averaging approximately 6.5 ignitions per Indigenous fire steward per year. The ignition characteristics we document align closely with data on historical fire regimes and vegetation but differ substantially from the location and timing of contemporary ignitions. This work demonstrates the importance of cultural burning for developing and maintaining the ecosystems present at the time of colonization and underscores the need to work collaboratively with Indigenous communities to restore ecocultural processes in these systems.

Skye M. Greenler, Frank K. Lake, William Tripp, Kathy McCovey, Analisa Tripp, Leaf G. Hillman, Christopher J. Dunn, Susan J. Prichard, Paul F. Hessburg, Will Harling, John D. Bailey

Greenler, Skye M., Frank K. Lake, William Tripp, Kathy McCovey, Analisa Tripp, Leaf G. Hillman, Christopher J. Dunn, et al. 2024. “ Blending Indigenous and Western Science: Quantifying Cultural Burning Impacts in Karuk Aboriginal Territory.” Ecological Applications e2973.

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