Minnesota ranks first among states in the amount of natural wild rice growing in lakes and streams. But keeping the beloved aquatic plant plentiful takes some effort.
Big storms can raise water levels and wipe out the grasslike shoots. Development, fewer wetlands and decreased water quality also take a toll. So, too, can swans, geese and other wildlife, who love to gobble it up.
A college student from Lakeville got a grant to try a new way to save some wild rice plants in the St. Louis River estuary near Duluth this summer: scaring away the water fowl with human-powered boats.
Sam Hansen, a senior biology major at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, spent a big chunk of his time in June and July paddling kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards in four rice-laden bays out of eight that he was monitoring with trail cameras. He enlisted the help of friends and family, too, making sure boaters were out almost every day unless weather made it too dangerous to go.
If the experiment proves successful, Hansen said, he hopes officials can direct paddlers to the bays where wild rice grows naturally, maybe by using social media, schools or other channels.
Though nobody knows how much wild rice once grew in the estuary, the consensus is that it is now a “minor, background component of the estuary, hanging on at a fraction of its former abundance,” according to a St. Louis River Estuary Wild Rice Restoration Implementation plan made for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Officials aim to restore at least 275 acres of wild rice to the estuary over 10 years.
Wild rice is important to the state. Called manoomin in the Ojibwe language, it was a staple food for American Indians who settled in Minnesota. Named the official state grain in 1977, almost all of the wild rice produced in the world came from Minnesota for many years, according to the state.
Licensed harvesters continue to collect wild rice from lakes using sticks to knock the grain into canoes, the traditional way.
“We love wild rice for a lot of reasons,” said DNR wetland habitat team supervisor Ricky Lien.
“There is work to both manage what we have out on the landscape … and there is work to establish wild rice back in its historical range when we have the money and the ability to do so and the conditions are right.”
One of the problems in the estuary lately has been Canada geese, Hansen said.
Officials have tried to chase them away or keep the geese at bay, but each method has its own pluses and minuses: Exclusion fences placed in the water to surround the rice are expensive and difficult to maintain. Deterrent gadgets such as silver tape no longer intimidate when geese get desensitized to them. More hunters could be deployed, but some people don’t like the idea of killing the wild birds.
Hansen, 21, learned about the importance of wild rice to American Indian cultures when he took a class called First Nations Myths and Legends, he said.
He decided to combine that with his interest in biology. He applied for and won a $3,500 Summer Undergraduate Research Scholarly and Creative Activity Fellowship from his school.
What has Hansen learned so far?
Geese don’t scare easily.
“There’s been times when there’s been, like, 23 geese out there,” he said. “By the time you chase away one half of the geese, the other half are still there and they don’t care.”
But while the birds he saw when he arrived at the sites each day may have led him on wild goose chases, the big birds didn’t seem to land nearby if he or other paddlers were already there, he said.
Simply being there and splashing a paddle around, might have been a deterrent.
Geese seemed to like to eat the rice stalks most just as the stalks were growing from a “floating leaf stage” to an “upright leaf stage,” he said.
That happened in the months of June and July, so that’s when boats were strategically deployed.
“You’ve just got to be really persistent about it,” Hansen said.
Hansen’s remaining task is analyzing all of the photographs taken by the cameras to see whether the paddlers actually had an influence.
“I don’t really know what the answer is yet,” he said. “I’m still in the process of doing data analysis.”