Partnership between MSU, Sault Tribe encourages tribe members to consider pursuing natural resources careers

A collaboration between Michigan State University and the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians is preparing tribal members to join the fisheries and wildlife management field through a graduate program.

A collaboration between Michigan State University and the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians is preparing tribal members to join the fisheries and wildlife management field through a graduate program.

Eric Clark
Eric Clark, wildlife biologist for the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

In 1836, the United States government and the Anishinaabeg, ancestors to several Native American tribes, agreed to the Treaty of Washington. The Anishinaabeg ceded more than 13.8 million acres to the U.S. — a portion of Michigan’s eastern Upper Peninsula and northwest Lower Peninsula — which set the stage for Michigan to become the nation’s 26th state a year later.

In exchange, the tribes retained the right to use the land for hunting, trapping, gathering and fishing. A series of ensuing court rulings and consent decrees reaffirmed the treaty-reserved rights, in addition to serving as allocation agreements for various species in the name of fish and wildlife population health.

More than 180 years later, Eric Clark, the wildlife biologist for the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, said the tribe and other Anishinaabe communities continue to take seriously the authority to manage and responsibly sustain plants and animals.

“The fish, wildlife and plants of the northern Great Lakes region are inextricably linked to the Anishinaabe culture, worldview and subsistence lifestyle,” Clark said. “It’s vital that we bring forward better ways to manage the ecological systems that support this community in the face of increased resource extraction and changing climate dynamics. We believe the best way to accomplish this is through the production of indigenous and western science-based information to inform our management decisions.”

The Sault Tribe has more than 44,000 members, but few have pursued natural resources careers. In response, a collaboration between Michigan State University and the tribe is preparing tribal members to join the fisheries and wildlife management field through a graduate program.

While an informal partnership has been in place for more than a decade, a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2019 formalizing the relationship and establishing the Center for Cooperative Ecological Resilience (CCER).

Before co-leading this initiative, Clark took a nontraditional path to his career as a wildlife biologist. Both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees are interdisciplinary, the latter earned from what is now the MSU Department of Community Sustainability. His interests in ecology and indigenous people’s rights converge in his role with the Sault Tribe, which began in 2008.

“I’m not a member of the Sault Tribe, but my wife and children are,” Clark said. “I’m passionate about conservation and wildlife management, and I’ve learned a lot about tribal natural resource priorities. Many of the species that have cultural significance to the tribe are ones that are vulnerable to climate change and different management strategies.”

Soon after beginning his role with the Sault Tribe, Clark began working with Gary Roloff, a professor in the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife who studies wildlife ecology and forest management. Clark has since become a doctoral student in Roloff’s laboratory.

“The goal (of the MSU-Sault Tribe partnership) is to get members of the tribe interested in a potential wildlife career early, perhaps hiring them as undergraduate field technicians on research projects. Having more underrepresented groups engaged in natural resource management is crucial.” - Gary Roloff, a professor in the MSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife

The two scientists share a desire to learn more about how particular species interact with their habitats, with an emphasis on forest management tactics that can mitigate effects of climate change. Early efforts of the partnership have focused on wildlife species of importance to the tribe.

Clark’s research is dedicated to snowshoe hares, a common food source for predators in the eastern Upper Peninsula, and the influence climate change has on their habitat. Other projects have examined American marten movements, how forest composition affects ruffed grouse nesting and the effect prescribed fires have on small mammal communities.

In addition to research valuable to the Sault Tribe, Clark and Roloff have identified tribal member education on fisheries and wildlife management as critical.

“Within the CCER, our focus has been on training graduate students thus far, but we recognize the importance of working with undergrads as an entry point to the program,” Roloff said. “The goal is to get members of the tribe interested in a potential wildlife career early, perhaps hiring them as undergraduate field technicians on research projects. Having more underrepresented groups engaged in natural resource management is crucial.”

The CCER has had four Sault Tribe member students participate thus far, including Brad Silet, who now serves as lead fisheries biologist for the tribe. The next step is to jointly pursue larger external funding opportunities and recruit more students.

“We think we can leverage the resources of both MSU and the Sault Tribe to receive outside funding for the center,” Roloff said. “This would allow us to support more tribal students and their research projects. It’s a great opportunity to do meaningful, on-the-ground work that advances our knowledge of how ecosystems function, while exposing students to indigenous and western philosophies of science.

“Ultimately, a graduate degree prepares students to lead tribal resource programs, makes them competitive for hiring by state and federal agencies, and over the long term will infuse diverse perspectives into resource management. This is in all of our best interests.”


This article was published in In the Field, a yearly magazine produced by the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University. To view past issues of In the Field, visit www.canr.msu.edu/inthefield. For more information, email Eileen Gianiodis, editor, at gianiod1@msu.edu or call 517-355-1855.

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