Higher temperatures and bigger swings between wet and dry weather are challenging the plants and animals that Ojibwe people in northeastern Minnesota have lived alongside for hundreds of years.

With species like wild rice, paper birch and moose at risk, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa are all working on strategies to aid ecosystems on their reservation lands in northeast Minnesota.

Members of the three bands also have rights under an 1854 treaty to hunt, fish and gather on lands ceded to the U.S. government in one of the most vulnerable sections of the state. Full of cold-loving spruce forests, this northern ecosystem is under intense pressure from a warming climate. Parasites are flourishing that feast on species like moose. Trout can't survive in overheated streams.

Many of these plants and animals may simply migrate north. But that's not necessarily an option for the Native people whose traditions are entwined with them.

"That ceded territory sticks in place," said Rob Croll, the climate change program coordinator at Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. "Those treaty rights aren't transferable, say, to Canada, if wild rice would not be found south of the border anymore, for example."

While these Native communities are already years into this work, Congress is poised to send $272.5 million more for tribes to build resilience to climate change as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed by the U.S. Senate on Sunday and is now headed for the House.

Transforming landscapes

Climate change may be the slow-motion disaster rolling over northeast Minnesota — but many years of disruption have already altered the land.

Attempts in the 1920s to install ditches and drain land for agriculture, including on the 100,000-acre Fond du Lac reservation, was "probably the greatest ecological disaster that happened on Fond du Lac," said Reginald DeFoe, resource management director and an enrolled member of the band.

Ojibwe people migrated around the Great Lakes and into modern-day Minnesota because of a historic prophecy to find the place where food grows on water, said Wayne Dupuis, environmental program manager for the Fond du Lac and an enrolled member of the band.

That food is manoomin — the Ojibwe word for wild rice.

Wild rice does best in the muddy edges of rivers and lakes, in about 1 to 3 feet of water, said Darren Vogt, resource management division director for the 1854 Treaty Authority. The intertribal group is dedicated to protecting the natural resources in the ceded lands, and is updating its 2016 climate adaptation plan.

Swings between drought and flood — a widely expected consequence of climate change — can affect the rice in significant ways if certain periods of growth are disrupted.

Last year, low water levels across the state meant a lot of rice was able to sprout. But the drought made it hard to reach rice beds from a boat or canoe without getting stuck in the mud, DeFoe and Dupuis said.

This year, a soggy spring seems to have drowned many of the rice plants in a crucial stage when their leaves began to float on the surface, severely decreasing the amount on Fond du Lac land, Dupuis said.

Vogt said it's been a challenge to directly tie the success or failure of rice crops to climate change — but some long-term trends are emerging.

"Over 20 years, you start to see that line angling downhill for total abundance," he said.

Higher temperatures may also encourage other plants that compete with the rice, Vogt said, and help support pests that feed on it.

Fond du Lac has been part of several rice reseeding efforts, with the most recent along the St. Louis River, which forms the border of the reservation. But planting efforts there have been challenged by an influx of geese, which have mowed the plants down before they can produce seed, Dupuis said.

The project "is ongoing, but dependent on the availability of seeding stock," which is low this year because of the spring flooding, Dupuis said.

The Bois Forte band is taking a different approach to helping rice overcome variation in water levels. Managers on the reservation carefully control the water levels in 7,400-acre Nett Lake, said Chris Holm, director of natural resources programs for Bois Forte.

In the spring, they use a dam to lower the water so the rice isn't drowned; as the season goes on, the water level is gradually raised so that it's reachable by boat.

Setting and stopping fires

Indigenous people have long used a practice that is now increasingly viewed as a key to controlling more aggressive wildfires: prescribed burns, or fires set intentionally.

These fires can reduce the fuel loads, or dead wood and fallen leaves and pine needles, that may ignite in a forest. The goal isn't always to do that, though — on Fond du Lac, the fires are often employed to encourage wild blueberry growth, DeFoe said.

Prescribed burns require careful coordination, however, and aren't always possible on Bois Forte, said Lance Hill, forestry program manager and an enrolled band member. The band doesn't have enough staff to safely carry out prescribed burns.

And in years like 2021, when wildfires burned across Canada and the Superior National Forest, the goal is to make sure wild blazes don't explode.

Last year, "The conditions for a fire getting out of hand, they were there," Hill said. "We were on edge."

Boreal forest

The place where approaches may diverge the most among the three bands is in managing which tree species are in their forests.

Already on Fond du Lac, Forest Manager Alexander Mehne is conducting an experiment in "assisted migration" — or taking southern tree species and planting them farther north. Each species — like black walnut, swamp white oak, river birch and black maple — is selected for a reason.

The paper birch, for example, has been used for centuries in traditional canoe-making. But eventually, higher temperatures will let the bronze birch borer, a common pest to the south, kill the birches at younger and younger ages, Mehne said.

River birch that's being planted now on the reservation is resistant to the borer. The idea is that this different species could serve similar uses but survive a hotter climate.

"If climate change does destroy paper birch, then the choice won't be paper birch or river birch," Mehne said. "It might be river birch or no birch."

Assisted migration is also under discussion among the managers of the Superior National Forest, which is part of the lands ceded in 1854. Managers there are mostly considering a milder form of the strategy — taking seed from the southern ranges of trees that already exist in the forest, said Katie Frerker, a forest ecologist for Superior.

The Forest Service has been consulting Native people and tribes throughout the plan's development, Frerker said, and it quickly became clear that the nearby Grand Portage band had concerns about a more aggressive assisted migration.

Mostly, the concerns revolve around moose. Moose in the area have been struggling from several problems, and climate change is making all of them worse, said Seth Moore, director of biology and environment with the Grand Portage band.

Winter ticks are exploding in numbers during warmer springs, overwhelming the moose, Moore said. The moose then rub off much of their fur from the itching, leaving them vulnerable to hypothermia if a cold snap hits.

Higher temperatures are also expanding the range of deer — imperiling moose because deer carry a brainworm they can withstand, but moose can't, Moore said.

Planting species typical to the south, like oaks, could give deer acorns to feed on and make the problem even worse. One day it may be necessary to import tree seed from much farther south, Moore said — but not yet.

"I'd rather us focus on promoting a healthy boreal ecosystem, with moose" as an indicator of ecosystem health, he said. "If that fails, let's do something different."