DULUTH — Gaggles of geese have foiled plans to restore wild rice on the St. Louis River, leaving those leading the work to a last resort: As many as 300 of the birds will be euthanized next summer to give the native rice a chance to thrive.
Several agencies, including the Wisconsin and Minnesota departments of Natural Resources, have been battling the Canada geese as they work to restore 275 acres of wild rice to the river, part of a plan to remove it from a national list of polluted Great Lakes waterways. Other means of deterring geese from ravaging rice beds have been employed, including decoys, disturbances from kayakers, egg addling (hatching prevention) and fencing.
The estuary was once home to vast beds of wild rice, or manoomin in Ojibwe, which is not only a crucial source of nutrition for the Anishinaabe but part of their origin story. It was the sacred food that brought them to the Great Lakes. Decades of pollution and habitat change "decimated" the St. Louis River's population of rice, and recent efforts to restore it haven't been successful, said Jeramy Pinkerton of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"Rice comes up, but it doesn't get a chance to grow," he said, because of its popularity with geese.
The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa noted geese as a hazard to rice restoration on the river as early as the 1990s, said Dave Grandmaison, who coordinates the wild rice project for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
A federal restoration plan was formed in 2014.
The estuary is too big for some nonlethal efforts to work, Grandmaison said, noting that the geese return once scared off, become accustomed to decoys and have too many places to nest for addling to be effective. Even fencing, while helpful, can't be the only means to protect stands of rice because of the estuary's size.
About 80 geese were euthanized in 2021 in Superior's Allouez Bay.
"The real effects of that removal were seen this year," where dense wild rice now grows in the bay, Grandmaison said. "It was absolutely beautiful."
The 1854 Treaty Authority, an intertribal natural resource management agency, will monitor the effects of the goose removal and let the state resource departments know if it's enough. But geese tend to leave dense stands of rice alone, Pinkerton said, so once the beds have a chance to mature, they should be able to withstand future feeding. Both adult and juvenile geese near wild rice beds will be targeted — rounded up during their flightless molting phase in June and July and euthanized. Their bodies will be donated to the Lake Superior Zoo and other wildlife sanctuaries to feed carnivores.
The work is funded through the Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The cost of capturing and euthanizing the geese wasn't immediately available.
The Duluth City Council approved the Minnesota DNR plan Monday night, but the city will not be part of carrying it out.
Typically, geese that must be managed are found in more compact areas, such as golf courses or athletic fields, said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of parks and properties.
The approach the state agencies and their partners are taking fits the nature of the problem, he said, managing a population of "many hundreds of geese spread out across more than 12,000 acres of de facto wildland — much of which can only be accessed by a mix of watercraft and mucking through wetlands."
And restoring wild rice to the river, Filby Williams said, "is of outsized importance" both culturally and ecologically.
Project partners include the Fond du Lac Band and the St. Louis River Alliance.