Slow, Scarce and Sacred

Author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills offers our readers the fifth in her series of essays on natural resource experts and their work in Northwest Lower Michigan. In this engaging profile, Nature Change readers learn a little herpetology and tribal wisdom from biologist, Ari Cornman.

Stephanie Mills and Ari Cornman

On a warm day in mid-September, Ari Cornman, who’s the Senior Wildlife Biologist for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and I met up in the Manistee National Forest to visit a collaborative turtle preservation project.

As nature outings go, this was a sleeper.  We strolled around a small barrens within a grassy oak and pine glade to look at the exclosures protecting several box turtle nests, these laboriously excavated by the mother turtles.  The nests, sheltered by the small metal and wire mesh cages, were ripe with potential but devoid of visible activity.  None of the turtle eggs buried within had hatched yet, but the project gave them that chance at least.  Turtle eggs are nearly everyone’s favorite bonbon: raccoons, skunks, foxes, mink, coyotes, crows, ravens, vultures, snakes, shrews and bears all raid turtle nests.  If thanks to chance or humane intervention, the eggs can hatch and the hatchlings can disperse, traveling a few inches a day, to find good habitat and dodge their legions of predators along with motor vehicles, bulldozers, and poachers Cornman told us a lucky few of these slow and steady young’uns could attain eighty years of age.

Ari Cornman

A lot of wildlife biologists, tribal or other, share the conviction that all species have an inherent right to exist.  In  Cornman’s view, “Nonhumans have rights by virtue of the fact that they’re alive.” Ecosystem science and countless studies demonstrate that even the most obscure creatures have indispensable roles but the conviction that all species have intrinsic value is also a matter of the heart.

Wiry, russet-haired, bespectacled and eagle-beaked, curious and alert, Cornman comes even more alive when he’s talking about nature. A city boy, his love of the outdoors was kindled by his father and encouraged by Scouting. When he learned, as a school kid, of all the threats to the environment, he wanted to do something, to help. Biology became his career. In grad school he researched flying squirrels, then worked in Texas with the endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chicken.  In the Rockies with the US Fish and Wildlife Service his job was reconciling endangered species preservation and forest management.  In 2013, after several years in Japan Cornman, a self-professed jack-of-all-trades, came home to the US and took the job with the Little River Band.

The wildlife question that initially got me on Ari Cornman’s trail didn’t have to do with turtles but white-tailed deer.  Deer, through no fault of their own are now a scourge of woodland ecology, browsing out most native tree seedlings and many spring wildflowers. As more than one conservationist said, “they’re eating us out of house and home.”

Biologists have learned that landscapes lacking “apex” predators, like wolves or cougars, fall out of balance and suffer from overgrazing. The absence of an understory in much of our woods attests this. As Julia Whitty put it, “the world is green because carnivores eat herbivores.”  Annual buck hunts are an inadequate substitute for the immemorial web of mutual influences among wild predators and prey.

“As an ecologist,” said Cornman, “I tend to think more in terms of species than individuals. I don’t want waste or suffering. I think in terms of ecosystems. Is the species serving its ecological function? Population is paramount.”

Today, writes the Michigan Nature Association, “Over 700 plants and animals in Michigan are rare and/or declining … due to habitat loss, invasive species … climate change … and other factors.”

Cornman and Protective Turtle Nest Exclosure

What’s a respectful and ecologically sound relationship with deer, or any other species whose numbers are either excessive – like deer – or species like box turtles whose numbers are dwindling because our excessive species has disturbed the balance of nature? For many thousands of years using Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) Michigan’s indigenous peoples maintained respectful relationships with other inhabitants of the region. Subsistence, sense of place, and tradition were primary. I looked to Cornman, as a tribal biologist, for some ideas about Anishinaabek relations with wildlife today.

In the Uniform Conservation Code of the Ottawa and Chippewa of Northern Michigan adopted in 2004 by the Little River Band’s Tribal Council we read that “upon each animal species Gzemnidoo [the Creator] conferred special powers and a nature sufficient to fulfill that species’ being and form. These … are a form of the Creator’s own powers … [T]hus plant and animal kind are considered spiritual elders.” Further, “There is no Anishinaabek tradition of killing for sport or recreation.” Having begun with profound humility, the Code went on to articulate a clear set of fish and wildlife regulations. Subsequent versions differ, but contemporary tribal wildlife management began with a sense of sacred kinship.

“The tribe comes to nature from a different perspective. It stems from reverence, an intrinsic respect, a relationship to the natural world that many people have lost,” says Cornman. Tribal biologists, schooled in the methods and language of science, often wind up translating and mediating between these knowledge systems. When I asked Cornman, who is not a tribal member, how the difference plays out in practice, he said,

“Tribes try and preserve things. There’s not such a drive to manage things all the time.”

Michigan Ottawa and Chippewa (Anishinaabek) retained according to the treaty of 1836 traditional use rights for hunting, fishing, and gathering plants for subsistence, healing, and ceremony across the Ceded Territory – about a third of the northwest lower and eastern upper peninsulas. Around the turn of this century, several tribes asserted, and through litigation and negotiation, regained those rights on public lands and waters. Of course, many other state and governmental entities also manage natural resources in the Territory. It’s a complex situation. The tribes established their own fish and wildlife departments, complete with biologists, harvest regulations, and enforcement among tribal members.

Along with its other duties, Cornman saw a clear mission for the Little River Band’s Natural Resources Department in work to preserve the threatened and endangered animals, especially those of cultural significance in their territory. Once common and now scarce, box turtles are among them.

Newly hatched box turtles.

Among the Anishinaabek peoples turtles are a clan animal, the totem of a group within the tribe. “As animals are endowed with certain traits of character,” says the Code, “the Anishinaabek emulate the animals as our sacred totems and continue to seek, attain, and perpetuate that character and make it part of ourselves.”

Extremely ancient creatures, turtles evolved long before dinosaurs, let alone our rookie species. Over the eons, across the planet’s land and waters, they diversified into hundreds of species, ten of which are found in Michigan. The box turtles, unlike their more aquatic kin, are mainly upland creatures. They were hunted for their shells which made fine bowls and rattles and for their meat. Until recently the box turtle’s uniquely hinged under shells (plastrons) and domed upper shells (carapaces), together closable made them tough nuts to crack – not tough enough to withstand industrial civilization’s onslaughts, though.

Box turtles on the move.

Given half a chance, turtles can instruct us in endurance and taking time; about home and security being intrinsic capabilities; about a reclusive, stubborn, sinewy strength. Helping them persist seems as obvious and natural a responsibility as helping your grandparents.

Ari Cornman’s care for these animals was obvious that day in the forest. He recounted what he knew of their natural history in the region, and what has been learned recently by GVSU biologists who launched the investigation of Box turtle numbers, nesting habits, and survival. That bright afternoon among the scattered exclosures in the clearing, Cornman’s science kept him cautious about claiming long-term results for this simple, intervention on behalf of a threatened species, one of several the tribe has undertaken.

“Much of what we do is research. When you’re doing conservation, there are knowledge gaps. You may not know if what you’re doing is right.” Yet, he said, “We do a lot. I am proud of the work we do.”

Standing in the turtle’s hollow that day, Cornman noted that there were more box turtle nests this year than last. It’s a joy to report that a few days after our visit, fifteen eggs in three the protected nests hatched. Fifteen tiny turtles set out to take their chances, bearing their special powers and traits of character into a harsh and holy world.

One thought on “Slow, Scarce and Sacred

  1. Love the last line: “Fifteen tiny turtles set out to take their chances, bearing their special powers and traits of character into a harsh and holy world.” Such an act of hope. I’ve become one of the unofficial gang who stop for them, and when possible, move them across the highway. This happens especially in spring. This year, I moved six or seven, but also stopped to find about equally as many crushed.

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