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Ute Mountain Utes look to preserve habitat of native plants

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is creating a management plant to preserve and sustain native plants relied on for ceremonies and other cultural purposes. (Journal file photo)
Funding from Great Outdoors Colorado supports new management plan for preserving traditional ceremonial plants

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe intends to create a plan that will preserve the habitat and sustainable harvest of culturally important plants used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, food and traditional artwork.

The tribe was awarded a $55,000 grant for the ethnobotany project from Great Outdoors Colorado in cooperation with Trees Water & People, Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps and the Montezuma Land Conservancy.

Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a culture and region make use of native plants.

Leading the first year of the native plant project is Farley Ketchum Sr., a Ute Mountain Ute who works as a biologist technician for the tribe’s Environmental Department. He is a Bear Dance and Sun Dance chief and uses traditional plants in the ceremonies.

“The goal is to pass on the knowledge of traditional native plants to the next generation and create a plan so harvesting is sustainable and can continue into the future,“ Ketchum said.

Over-harvesting of traditional native plants is a concern in areas on the reservation like the Mancos Canyon, he said. Drought has had an impact as well.

“We are losing our willow patches needed for basket making, and have to go farther and farther to find them,” Ketchum said.

Plants used by the tribe include cottonwood trees, aspen, willow, sumac, sagebrush, chokecherry, buffalo berries, wild onion, mint, yucca, Mormon tea, bear root, wild bergamot, juniper, piñon pine, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

Building a greenhouse so the tribe can cultivate seeds of native plants and replant them in degraded areas is part of the overall plan. Grants will be sought for construction.

The project will include an inventory and assessment of the condition of known harvest locations to identify restoration and resilience needs.

Habitat degradation in native plant communities on tribal lands has impaired ecological function, diminished important wildlife habitat, and threatens the preservation of tribal cultural traditions.

The tribe has access to its ancestral lands off the reservation to gather plants, including on the San Juan National Forest and Bureau of Land Management, and on private lands where they have permission.

For example, tribal members partner with local farmers in McElmo Canyon to gather native plants

Ketchum plans to go to Taylor Mesa on the national forest north of Dolores next week to gather aspen, spruce, and Douglas fir boughs for the upcoming Sun Dance ceremony at the end of June.

Increased development has impacted native plant habitat relied on by the tribe.

“There is more building now in places we used to gather,” Ketchum said. “In Allen Canyon, (Utah) the willows are gone, and we have to travel up to Moab to find them.”

As part of the project, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe will collaborate with the Montezuma Land Conservancy to explore improved access to traditional harvest on private lands within the ancestral land base of the tribe.

“Our supportive role is to see if private landowners would be interested in allowing some voluntary access in collaboration with the tribe,” said Travis Custer, executive director of the Montezuma Land Conservancy.

Historically there has been long-held relationships between local landowners and Ute Mountain Ute tribal members that allowed them access to ancestral lands to gather culturally important native plants.

“It’s been good, people have been in the area enough to have an understanding of Ute culture,” Ketchum said.

But as people move and land changes hands, those connections can be lost, and “we have to start over.”

Project organizers will engage the Ute Mountain Ute community to co-create a Traditional Harvest Plan that will allow for sustainable harvest of culturally important plants on reservation lands for future generations.

At the conclusion, a video will be produced outlining the project and benefits of preserving native plant communities. The video will be shared with other tribes, and serve as an educational tool for youths.

Native plants were used for traditional medicine, Ketchum added.

Ponderosa sap was used to cover wounds, and pine needles were boiled for a healing tea.

Ute people made willow bark tea for headaches, fever, pain and inflammation, according to a History Colorado report and the Ute Indian Museum in Montrose. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the main ingredient in aspirin.

Piñon tree pitch is used to waterproof hand-woven baskets. Yucca can be made into twine and and its fruits and flowers are edible.

Mormon tea soothes a cough or cold, and big sagebrush eases stomach ailments and is used during ceremonies.