by Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
The supervisory fisheries and wildlife biologist for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is Caleb Hickman. But Hickman is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, one of two other federally recognized Cherokee tribes.
“We share a common ancestry here in the mountains,” Hickman said. “Ironically, I now live in the county named after the man that instituted the forced removal of my ancestors and the ethnic cleansing of many tribes by initiating the Indian Removal Act. That’s Andrew Jackson. So, in a way, I’ve come full circle on their behalf.”
Despite that unfortunate history, Hickman says he feels at home here in the Great Smoky Mountains, where he coordinates management and research projects for the protection of tribal resources that include game and non-game fish and wildlife species. He helps to choose priority species and their habitats to manage based on cultural, economic, and federal protective needs.
“We don’t have a large crew of biologists like Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” he said, “but we do have a lot of federal processes and we live in a biodiversity-rich place.”
Hickman and his crew focus on myriad aspects of biology and work with a variety of species, including the Smokies’ iconic black bears. In collaboration with the local hunting community, Hickman is currently deploying a ‘bear hair snare’ and camera-trapping project.
“This project requires us to evaluate pictures and collect DNA from hair off of a barbed wire in a baited area to determine more information about the population and its interactions with people,” he said.
When it comes to managing large wildlife, elk top this list. Some of the largest groups of reintroduced elk live in and along the Qualla Boundary, often crossing roads and creating a potential safety hazard. Elk–human interactions typically rise during the holidays when tourism traffic picks up.
“We hope to find coexistence with elk and people so that both are safe and can be productive,” Hickman says. “People need to be able to view elk safely and get to work on time, while the elk need to find places to rest, eat, and find mates.”
In his fisheries work Hickman is helping lead efforts to restore native species that have declined or may have even been wiped out in certain areas. He recently published a paper on the curious fate of the EBCI’s stocked fish.
Recently Hickman’s projects have been much sought after by national media. Last year he was featured on a PBS series about road ecology, and this fall a crew from National Geographic filmed him for a show coming out in 2021. One research initiative was mentioned in the October issue of Garden & Gun. Most recently American Rivers quoted him saying:
“Historically, biologists manage systems as something we can control, enforcing our will based on needs. But the native perspective is that we’re part of the system. We don’t need to command change. You don’t manage the system the same way if you see that you’re a part of it.”
Caleb Hickman holds a black rat snake captured and measured for census work. Image courtesy of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians
Caleb Hickman releases the federally endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel as part of a nest box survey. Image courtesy of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians