National Drought Mitigation Center


U.S. Drought Monitor now searchable by tribal area

August 10, 2021

The Brown Otter Buffalo Ranch on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation encompasses over 20,000 acres. The tribal area is one of over 300 that users of the U.S. Drought Monitor can now search for by name to explore current and past drought conditions. Photo by USDA NRCS South Dakota

In mid-June, about 42% of the 3,572-square-mile Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was experiencing extreme drought. Home to the Sihasapa and Hunkpapa bands of the Lakota Nation, the reservation straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border, and the Great Plains tribal area measures about twice the size of Delaware. In an area of that size and scope, drought affects life in many ways, said Doug Crow Ghost, president of the Great Plains Tribal Water Alliance. The drought, he said in June, was affecting annual tribal ceremonies.

“Right now sage is usually coming up pretty healthy,” Crow Ghost said. “And it's really dry right now, so a lot of the places where we usually go and pick sage, they're dry. They're gone because of the lack of rain of course, because of the drought.”

Visitors to the U.S. Drought Monitor (USDM) website can now search for drought conditions specific to tribal areas like the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The National Drought Mitigation Center, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, recently introduced search features that provide maps and data specific to 323 tribal areas. While water management experts like Crow Ghost have previously used Drought Monitor data to call attention to water rights and other water-related issues, he said that the new searchable features can help tribal communities see how drought is affecting them specifically. They will help producers better prepare plans for harvesting and help everyone better coexist “with our relatives that are four-legged animals, winged animals and also with Mother Earth and what it produces.”

Ranching and farming are key industries where he lives, and Crow Ghost said knowing how drought has developed and what likely lies ahead can influence agricultural and water management decisions that are meant to not only help people who live on the reservation, but also neighboring communities and downstream communities as well as animals and the earth.

When you visit and search the USDM’s numerous data and mapping products, “Tribal Areas” now appears in the dropdown menu of area types. Users can then view drought data or maps for 323 tribal areas. As with other defined territories, information and maps of the tribal areas can be cross-referenced with data from more than 20 years of USDM maps. For example, the searchable tools allow you to quickly find the highest percentage of exceptional drought that’s been recorded on the Wind River Reservation during the USDM’s history (28.3%, in January of 2003), graphs that show what percentage of the Navajo Nation is currently experiencing exceptional (D4) to extreme (D3) drought (85.7%, with 24.2% in D4 as of Aug. 5) and where extreme drought has settled on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation (the eastern half, including along the border of the area’s water source, the Missouri River).

“We know that drought is a condition of Mother Earth that is saying that she is sick,” Crow Ghost said. “Knowing where she's sick, knowing where these conditions are, can help us figure out where and why we should be planting or harvesting or not planting or not harvesting, or using more water, or using too much water. There's a lot of good information when you know what these areas look like specifically for the reservation, specifically for the communities, and then the states in the area of the Great Plains -- we call it the Great Plains Lakota Nation.”

Tribal areas are currently represented in the USDM’s map archive, data tables and time series products. The USDM change maps, which provide a week-to-week picture of where conditions improved or grew worse, will soon be available by tribal area as well.

The project to spotlight tribal area data on the U.S. Drought Monitor site is the latest effort to make the USDM more accessible to underserved populations, said National Drought Mitigation Center climatologist Brian Fuchs. A Spanish-language version of the USDM was previously created to provide weekly drought information for Spanish-speaking populations in the U.S. Both projects were completed by the National Drought Mitigation Center, housed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fuchs said it’s a goal of the USDA and NDMC to make the Drought Monitor more accessible. The USDA Office of the Chief Economist provided funding for the project. 

“One of the key purposes of the U.S. Drought Monitor is to provide people with the latest information about drought conditions where they live, so that they can best respond and react to drought as it develops or lingers,” said Fuchs, who is also a Drought Monitor author. “While the Drought Monitor has been releasing information about the regions where these tribal communities are located, providing drought conditions and computing statistics for the areas within the specific boundaries of these tribal areas allows users to shine a spotlight on how drought affects these communities. The NDMC has worked with a number of tribal partners on monitoring and mitigation efforts, and providing data and mapping tools for geographically defined tribal areas has been a goal for some time. We’re grateful for the funding from the USDA to get this project done and release it for the public to use.” 

Visit to explore the new search features.

-Cory Matteson, NDMC Communications