Loons, geese, swans and other wildlife also utilize wild rice lakes.
“It’s the corn crop of the north,’’ said Jon Schneider, Ducks Unlimited manager of Minnesota conservation programs. “It’s especially important for ringneck ducks, but other species, including teal and mallards, feed there, too.’’
Those who harvest wild rice benefit, too, sometimes with bumper crops, as many ricers found this season. In recent years, about 1,500 rice harvesting licenses have been sold, down from 16,000 in 1968. Development of commercial rice paddies is at least partly responsible for the decline in wild rice harvesters.
Landscape changes hurt rice
Before European settlement, wild rice was found throughout the state, not just in the north. In the south, ditching and drainage have ruined many shallow lakes for rice growth. And ditching, drainage and dams in the north have had similar effects.
“The big reservoirs — Sandy, Leech, Winnie, Whitefish, Gull — all were huge rice producers historically,’’ said Ustipak. The dams raised water levels, dramatically reducing wild rice.
Other changes brought more beavers, and beaver dams.
“The rice lakes up here evolved in a pine forest,’’ Ustipak said. “Now we’ve converted that forest mostly to aspen, which has created ideal conditions for beaver. Historically, they were here, but not at these levels.’’
Said Ustipak: “We have lost a lot of rice habitat, which makes it even more important to keep what’s left.’’
The lake we hunted Saturday underscores the benefits of proper water levels. A ditch in 1916 changed the lake, and the DNR in the 1960s tried to improve the situation by installing a dam. But water levels were too high many years to produce good wild rice.
Using Outdoor Heritage Fund money, established by the Legacy Act, the structure was removed in 2010 and water levels lowered. This year, the lake is choked with wild rice. And wildlife.
We ended the morning hunt with three teal and a wood duck, but we saw mallards, numerous flocks of Canada geese and even sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans.
“It was better than I thought it was going to be, but not as good as it could be,’’ Ustipak said of the opener. But he expects hunting will improve as fall migrants arrive — to feed on wild rice.
Doug Smith • 612-673-7667