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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Women of the Year: Roylene Comes at Night sets the table for conservation partnerships

Roylene Comes at Night is Washington state’s conservationist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. She is standing earlier this month in front of some of the pipe used to move surface water in the Columbia Basin Project.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

Rancher. Conservationist. Tribal liaison. Federal official. Mentor.

Roylene Comes at Night wears a lot of hats. As the longest-serving state conservationist in the country, that’s part of the job.

For 14 years, Comes at Night has served as the Washington state conservationist through the United States Department of Agriculture, although her career with the department goes back to her time in college more than 30 years ago.

The daughter of fourth-generation ranchers from the Blackfeet tribe of northwestern Montana, Comes at Night is responsible for all of the USDA’s operations in Washington.

“I always tell people, especially young people, find that place where you just know you are where you are supposed to be,” Comes at Night said. “I’m there. I know this is where the creator intended me to be. I was destined to be here.”

Comes at Night’s career with the Department of Agriculture has taken her across the country, but she started from the ground up when she was a 19-year-old student trainee through Montana State University.

After graduation, she worked with farmers, ranchers, land owners and tribes as a soil conservationist in various Department of Agriculture field offices in Montana.

She later served as one of the country’s first tribal liaisons out of Phoenix, and then moved on to work as an assistant state conservationist for field operations in southeast Oklahoma.

In 2005, Comes at Night was named as the Natural Resources State Conservation Service’s first Native American female conservationist in Rhode Island.

After her father suffered a heart attack, Comes at Night decided she wanted to work closer to home. In 2008, she was named Washington state conservationist.

“What people don’t realize is that the majority of the land in America is privately owned,” said Comes at Night, who lives in Spokane. “Our agency is one of the very few that works with private owners. We’re not like the Forest Service or (Bureau of Land Management) that has their own land to manage. We work with you, the farmer, the rancher, the landowner.”

Comes at Night’s department leads conservation efforts to rebuild wildlife habitats, improve air quality and reduce wildfires, among many other things.

A day in the life as Washington state conservationist can look like many things. Sometimes, it’s as simple as ordering new equipment, like computers or trucks for staff. Other times, it’s touring the site of massive, multimillion-dollar ecological projects like the Odessa Groundwater Replacement project, alongside legislators, federal officials, farmers and ranchers.

For that project, Comes at Night said her department and the Department of Ecology are proposing to take 500 irrigation systems off of a groundwater supply and divert 2% of the Columbia River flow through large siphons to irrigate farmland instead.

“She does a good job trying to set a table for folks to come around and have conversations,” said Nicole Berg, president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, who has worked with Comes at Night for the past decade. “She really wants to do that right thing for the land, as well as for the people. I think some of that may come from her background growing up in Native American culture. She really does live her job.”

The Dawe’s Act, passed in 1887, was used to break up tribal lands across the country and aimed at assimilating Native American culture into mainstream U.S. society by encouraging Native people into farming and agriculture.

Comes at Night’s great-great-grandfather, Rides at the Door, was among the first Blackfeet people who took the U.S. government up on that offer.

The learning curve was steep, and it took years before the ranch was successful, she said.

“Agriculture has been in my blood before I was even born,” she said. “My grandpa’s cows put my dad through college.”

Her nephew is running the ranch, and she and her husband are building a house on the land.

“I was born and raised there. My people have been in that area for 17,000-plus years,” she said. “I’m fortunate enough to be from this land in a sense. I practice my culture.”

For many conservationists around the country, Comes at Night serves as a mentor for understanding tribal culture and issues specific to Native American people, said Michael Crowder, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts who has worked with her for more than 10 years as a farmer and partner in conservation.

“She is my tribal mentor and, not just for me, for hundreds of people,” he said. “She’s just a good person all the way around. She’s good at knowing when to say things at the right time. I just have so much respect for her.”

In 2024, the Department of Agriculture will see a dramatic increase in growth when its budget increases to $20 billion as a result of the Inflation Reduction Act passed earlier this year.

“In my mind, we’re going to be key and critical for climate change,” Comes at Night said.

“We have an opportunity to really demonstrate that to the world, that voluntary conservation can make a difference to climate change and can make a difference to what’s happening.”

As climate change affects major agricultural states such as California and Texas, Comes at Night said she expects Washington will have an even greater role to play as an agricultural state.

Ultimately, she is hopeful for the future of conservation in the U.S.

“I see more possibility and opportunities because America is making conservation a priority,” Comes at Night said. “From the federal agency perspective, I believe we’ll be the center of climate change, and now we have this humongous investment. If we’re going to eat, agriculture needs to be priority.

“I’m really excited because we have a short window as an agency to deliver these funds and show outcomes. What I’m really exited about is that our leadership and staff are up for the challenge. We may be small, but we have a lot of partners who are going to come to the table with us.”