DULUTH — Kaitie Marsaa paddled her kayak up to a small stand of wild rice plants protruding from the shallow backwaters of the St. Louis River estuary and saw the damage:
Several stems of the tall, slim grass came to a blunt, squared end — the casualty, she figured, of a Canada goose.
“It’s been grubbed,” she announced to her co-worker Robin Foro, who was floating nearby in her own kayak and documenting on a clipboard the plant damage.
The two kayakers are working with eight others to paddle the estuary in shifts this summer in hopes of discouraging the hungry geese, whose appetites have proved to be one of the biggest problems in re-establishing wild rice here.
The grain, culturally significant to American Indian tribes, was once so abundant that it looked like hayfields in spots, according to oral history. That was before dredging, pollution and other human influence affected this Lake Superior fish nursery. Now, seeded by various groups, the rice is struggling to make a comeback and exists mostly in small clusters, much of it turning into tasty goose treats.
Using federal Environmental Protection Agency grant money, state officials in Wisconsin contracted with local groups this summer, resulting in the hiring of Marsaa, Foro and others in hopes of deterring the geese to help the rice flourish. The plants are used by nesting birds, muskrats and other wildlife. Worms and spiders that live on it become a source of food for fish and other species.
“It really is just an important piece of the ecosystem for the wetlands in this region,” said Matt Steiger, the St. Louis River’s Area of Concern Coordinator for the Wisconsin DNR, which is administering the grant. “We want to establish the beds so that they’re self-sustaining. We don’t want to seed by hand for the next 50 years to keep a rice stand here.”
One of the contracted groups, the citizen-based St. Louis River Alliance, hired paddlers for $12 an hour to dissuade the big birds through paddling and other methods, costing about $35,000 for the summer’s work.
Marking the damage
On the water one recent evening, Marsaa and Foro checked various stands of wild rice in bays. Some of the stems were healthy and were just starting to flower. Others had been ripped off, their slim lines blunted with browning ends.
They paddled and recorded their findings to be used in collecting data to decipher which deterrent works best.
While Marsaa and Foro found no geese actually eating wild rice in their targeted zone that evening, they marked the form estimating that about 80% of the wild rice plants they saw had been snatched by geese — not surprising given that they’d seen a flock of 25 to 30 geese there previously, they said.
Across the estuary, they paddled near a smaller flock.
“We try to angle our kayaks in a way so they don’t fly back into the zone,” Marsaa explained.
While the monitors don’t want to stress the big birds, they can often shoo them away from areas simply by paddling around, said Kris Eilers, executive director of the River Alliance.
For more aggressive geese, some monitors might slap their paddles on the water’s surface and try to splash around a bit to garner attention. Others might paddle quickly toward geese to get them to fly away instead of swim in circles.
The group also uses decoy swans and plans to use a recorded “alert” call of a goose to see if it might make geese reluctant to stick around. Strategically placed cameras collect images that officials hope will show when and where the geese feed and what might keep them away.
Marsaa, a 21-year-old recent biology graduate from the College of St. Scholastica, said she jumped at the chance for a job as a kayaking monitor of wild rice stands because she’s interested in ways to rehabilitate and stabilize populations of plants and animals.
Foro, 36, makes medicines from plants that she farms and is interested in the connection of wild rice to indigenous cultures, she said.
American Indian tribes were drawn to the estuary partly because of its abundance of food, including wild rice, called manoomin in the Ojibwe language.
“For us, as Ojibwe people, we have a long history of [wild rice] taking care of our people,” said Thomas Howes, natural resources program manager for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which has also seeded rice in the estuary. “It’s fed our people and given its energy or its life to us, so we have a life debt to it. When it’s struggling … we should try to do our best to pay back that debt.”
It is also a resource that is becoming more scarce, he said. Wild rice once grew in other parts of the continent, but now, in the U.S., it grows mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and a little bit in Michigan.
“Just biologically, as a species it’s important to protect things like that,” Howes said.
Next year, Howes said, groups may build exclusion cages around the seeded wild rice to keep the birds away.
Reseeds each year
While geese are a natural part of the ecosystem, wildlife officials say the plant stands need a chance to proliferate before they are nipped in the bud.
“We really would like them to have it as a food source eventually,” Steiger said.
Natural wild rice reseeds itself each year and grows optimally in moving water a half-foot to 3 feet deep. Officials in state and tribal governments have a shared goal of establishing 275 acres of wild rice in the area.
So they will continue to seed it by hand and coax it until that happens.
“We’re at a point where we believe the water quality in the river is adequate,” Steiger said. “The time is right to start restoring the rice.”