BROWNING — Behind Browning High School, you'll find willow branches tightly woven together against a wooden frame.
While it may look decorative, it's actually part of a snow fence — one of three that has been set up at the high school. The fences are part of a grant-funded project to build drought resiliency and help livestock and wildlife.
On a windy day, Tyrel Fenner weaved a willow branch into one of the snow fences behind the school, "we've got a few different types of snow fences here."
Fenner is a hydrologist with the Pikani Lodge Health Institute, which used grant money to fund the fences.
"We're using them to capture precipitation in the form of snow here. They're good for all sorts of uses, recharging wetlands is something we're doing locally. We're also improving rangeland,” Fenner said.
The willow branches are a nod to Blackfeet culture.
"Showcasing our tribal ecological knowledge here, of course, TEK as you may know it. So yeah, we've woven willow through here. It's a traditional practice seen in ceremonies and used under buffalo jumps in the past,” Fenner said.
Students like sophomore Tucker Juneau helped build the fences and have been recording data, like the amount of snowpack and water created.
"Getting to work with them, it shows us how much just having a snow fence really helps around here,” said Juneau.
"So far, they actually are working pretty much how we thought they would. We studied up beforehand, before designing these fences,” said Fenner.
Tucker and Fenner both say they're happy to have the fences.
"It feels good because we're not using plastic, it's decomposable, and it brings back our ways,” said Juneau.
"Get a great sense of pride off of doing this work, especially involving the community (and) getting input all the time,” said Fenner.
Blackfeet Nation climate change coordinator Tremaine Edmoo says the fences are part of the implementation of the tribe's Climate Change Adaptation Plan developed in 2018.
"We met with natural resource directors, elders, traditionalists, environmentalists, and health officials and really put together this community plan,” Edmoo explained.
Once the plan was developed, she said, those involved started digging into the water sector and conducting water studies.
"When the buffalo was taken away from us, we were really cultivated into a new era and so we had to adapt with that. We did the best we could and now we have a plan to follow and this water we're trying to protect will be here for generations to come,” said Edmoo. "My children's children and their children will be able to see these landscapes for what they truly are."
A short drive away on Blackfeet Community College land, snow fences had also been set up.
Wyett Wippert — who is studying hydrology at the college and is a member of the Native Science Fellows — said the fences were set up to demonstrate how they work and that they can be successful.
"We set them up here because this was a wetland at one point and it was starting to go dry,” said Wippert. "Native people have known forever that water is life. every living organism on the planet needs water to live. Like I said, we come from the Triple Divide and it's the best water in the world."
BCC students said since the water started collecting around the fences they've seen wildlife like birds and small rodents come to the area.
Even though the project was really just a few months old, Wippert was already looking ahead.
"We can take from this and use it and maybe even make different sized fences and you could put them at, maybe, different heights, starting heights, to see the variations of snow,” Wippert said.
An idea that could prove to be as important as the water it aims to create.