Rancher. conservationist. tribal connection. federal officer. Mentor.
Roylene Comes at Night wears many hats. As the country’s longest-serving conservationist, that’s part of the job.
Comes at Night has served as a conservationist for the US Department of Agriculture in Washington State for 14 years, although her career with the Department dates back to her college days more than 30 years ago.
Comes at Night is the daughter of fourth-generation ranchers from the Blackfeet tribe of northwestern Montana and is responsible for all USDA operations in Washington.
“I always tell people, especially young people, find that place where you just know you’re where you’re supposed to be,” Comes at Night said. “I’m there. I know the Creator wanted me here. I was meant to be here.”
Comes at Night’s career at the Department of Agriculture has taken her across the country, but she started from scratch when she was a 19-year-old intern at Montana State University.
After graduating, she worked with farmers, ranchers, landowners, and tribes as a soil conservationist at 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 served as an assistant state conservationist for field operations in southeastern Oklahoma.
In 2005, Comes at Night was named the First Native American Conservationist of the Natural Resources State Conservation Service 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 most 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) who have their own land to manage. We work with you, the farmer, the rancher, the landowner.”
The Comes at Night department leads conservation efforts to rebuild wildlife habitats, improve air quality and reduce wildfires, among other things.
A day in the life of a conservationist in Washington state can be like many things. Sometimes it’s as simple as ordering new equipment, like computers or trucks for staff. At other times, it tours the site of massive, multi-million dollar ecological projects like the Odessa Groundwater Replacement Project, along with lawmakers, federal officials, farmers and ranchers.
For this project, Comes at Night said its department and the Department of Ecology are proposing to isolate 500 irrigation systems from a groundwater supply and divert 2% of the Columbia River’s flow through large siphons to irrigate farmland instead.
“She does a good job of trying to set a table that people can come by and talk to,” 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 what is right for the country and the people. I think part of that comes from her background growing up in Native American culture. She really lives her job.”
The Dawe’s Act, passed in 1887, was used to break up tribal lands across the country and aimed to assimilate Native American culture into mainstream US society by encouraging Native people to farm and farm.
Comes at Night’s great-great-grandfather, Rides at the Door, was among the first Blackfeet people to take the US government on the offer.
The learning curve was steep and it took years for the ranch to thrive, she said.
“Farming was in my blood before I was even born,” she said. “My grandfather’s cows got my dad through college.”
Her nephew runs 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 this area for more than 17,000 years,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to be from this country in a way. I live my culture.”
For many conservationists across the country, Comes at Night serves as a mentor in understanding tribal culture and the specific issues facing Native Americans, said Michael Crowder, president of the National Association of Conservation Districts, who has worked with her farmer and conservation partner for more than 10 years.
“She is my tribal mentor and not just to me but to hundreds of people,” he said. “She’s just a good person all round. She knows well 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 growth spurt when its budget increases to $20 billion due to the Inflation Reduction Act passed earlier this year.
“I think we’re going to be the key to climate change,” Comes at Night said.
“We have an opportunity to really demonstrate to the world that voluntary conservation can change climate change and what’s happening.”
As climate change affects large agricultural states like California and Texas, Comes at Night expects Washington to play an even bigger role as an agricultural state.
Ultimately, she is hopeful for the future of conservation in the US
“I see more possibilities and opportunities because America is making conservation a priority,” Comes at Night said. “From a federal agency perspective, I believe we’re going to be at the center of climate change, and now we have this tremendous investment. If we want to eat, agriculture must come first.
“I’m really excited because as an agency we only have a short window to commit these funds and show results. What really excites me is that our leadership and employees are up to the challenge. We may be small, but we have many partners who come to the table with us.”