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Using traditional phenological knowledge

Date: March 29, 2018

Opportunities to utilize traditional phenological knowledge to support adaptive management of social-ecological systems vulnerable to changes in climate and fire regimes


Through experiential learning, and long-term and respectful interaction with the natural world, indigenous peoples across the world have gained a robust body of knowledge regarding ‘phenology’, or the recurring biological life cycles of plants and animals as they relate both to one another and to the changes of the seasons. This knowledge is inextricably tied to traditional conceptions of time, and important day-to-day activities including spiritual practice and pursuit of sustenance. 

Phenological Knowledge Diagram (found in publication)
Phenological Knowledge Diagram (found in publication)


While the compatibility of indigenous knowledge and adaptive management have been discussed in the literature, a lack of specificity regarding the types of knowledge to be applied, as well as how such knowledge could specifically contribute to adaptive management approaches, impedes this integration.

Observed climate change impacts on SESs evidenced by application of TPK in North America and elsewhere include: changes in animal migratory patterns, behavior, and populations; different seasonal timing of plant maturation, greening, and fruiting; growth of previously unseen plants; and changes and increased unpredictability of weather and seasonal events. For example, several observations made by members of Inuvialuit communities in the western Canadian Arctic that were attributed to climate change, such as changes in the timing of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) migrations and smaller populations of ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Some studies have discussed how TPK has actually been applied to increase flexibility and the understanding of how SESs respond to climate change and increased variation in seasonal cycles. For example, indigenous peoples in British Columbia, Canada, use the growth of stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) as a proxy to indicate when culturally important seaweed (Porphyra abbottiae) is ready for harvest. This has allowed for adaptation to variability in weather and avoids investment of time, money, and energy in traveling to seaweed sites at an inopportune time. More commonly, TPK studies indicate how adaptation to climate change could potentially be facilitated by seasonal calendars, sometimes referred to as seasonal rounds, seasonal narratives, or Aboriginal ecological calendars. These calendars, unlike the commonly used Gregorian (western) calendar in which dates and seasons are fixed, are composed of flexible seasons that are often separated by weather and climate events that correlate with particular biological indicators. In other words, they are calendars dictated by phenological events that have been observed by indigenous peoples for generations.

Key Findings

  • Better integration of TPK with the science of adaptive management may inform holistic and sustainable adaptive management strategies. Opportunities for applying TPK to support adaptive management, particularly in the western United States, include: 

    • Protection of important human values through a better understanding of both the potential benefits of proactive fire management and the safest times to apply prescribed burns.

    • Complement fire management and restoration efforts through better understanding of ecological reference conditions and the use of fire to conserve biological diversity; enhanced resilience of important livelihood practices, i.e.,

    • Agriculture, hunting, and gathering, in the face of climate change; and compliance with the United States Government’s Trust responsibility to tribes and indigenous peoples.

This unique knowledge is useful in the context of uncharacteristic fire regimes, as indigenous people have been utilizing burning practices to assist wildlife, plant growth, settlement, and other land management. Implementation of fire management and prescribed burns is assisted with additional knowledge of how these techniques impact ecology long term. Understanding of reference conditions through long term knowledge helps guide land managers in making decisions about what changes need to be made. Phenological knowledge is helpful in identification of cultural, resource, and livelihood practices for protection and restoration values for protection and restoration through fire management. 


Featured Publications

Armatas, Christopher (Chris) A. ; Venn, Tyron J. ; McBride, Brooke B. ; Watson, Alan E. ; Carver, Steve J. , 2016

Principal Investigators: 
Principal Investigators - External: 
Christopher A. Armatas - University of Montana
Tyron J Venn - School of Agriculture and Food Sciences
Brooke B McBride - University of Montana
Steve J Carver - University of Leeds