Photo courtesy of Flickr/clairity
Wild rice in northern Minnesota. The harvest has bounced back this year after devastating 2012 floods, but ricing is still limited.

No Longer Dead in the Water: Last Year’s Ailing Wild Rice Crop Bounces Back

Konnie LeMay
September 23, 2013

The June 2012 massive rainstorms that wiped out last year’s wild rice harvest on the Fond du Lac Reservation actually have aided the tribal resources department in managing two ricing lakes for a better harvest this year, though it is still smaller than in other years.

“We tried to find a silver lining,” said Thomas Howes, manager of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Natural Resources Program.

That silver lining came in the very rains that destroyed last year’s crop: They also hampered growth for two plants that compete with wild rice—pickerelweed and water lilies. Using water-control structures on Aatawemegokokaaning (Perch Lake) and Naawonigami zaaga’igan (Jaskari Lake), the resources staff kept water levels high after the flood, which kept the problem plants down and enabled the rice crop to bounce back.

“The fact that rice was gone gave us more management flexibility,” said Howes, adding that the staff also took advantage of the high water levels for boat access to areas with the undesirable plants. “We went everywhere across the lake and cut everything that was emergent that wasn’t flooded.”

Letting the natural balance of plants adjust itself is generally good for the ecosystem, Howes added, but historic alterations on the lakes can give the less desirable plants an unfair, unnatural advantage.

“The natural mix of vegetation is good to a point,” he said. “Rice is an annual, and the other plants we manage are aggressive perennials that enjoy the same growing conditions as wild rice. Left unchecked they will completely overrun the lake, which they essentially did. We certainly would rather let nature dictate the conditions in the watershed, but when things are this far out of balance, it required some intervention.”

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The work to reduce those competing plants this year allowed those two lakes have “phenomenal” wild rice crop this year, Howes said.

However, wild rice on the three other on-reservation lakes had below-average levels, producing only about half of the usual 800 acres. Available rice was down so much so that the band decided for the first time to limit the on-reservation hunting/fishing/gathering license to band members only. Usually, non-band members could also be licensed, allowing families with band and non-band members to rice together on the reservation. Those licenses still are available to non-band members for off-reservation ricing.

This year’s restriction caused frustration and disappointment for families in which only one spouse is a tribal member. Many have logged decades of family tradition harvesting rice on reservation lakes.

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Debra Topping, a Fond du Lac member whose husband is Red Cliff Ojibwe and not eligible for the on-reservation license, told the Duluth News Tribune, “That’s our food. That’s what led the Anishinaabe here. I collect whatever I am able to get in a year; whatever the Creator gives. Last year there wasn’t [any], so this year we’re scraping the bottom.”

Howes expressed sympathy but noted that the band was exercising its right to govern.

“It’s unfortunate that people are upset, but it’s certainly in the band’s authority,” Howes said of the restriction, adding that other bands already have similar restrictions. “This is just a one-time thing. They’re going to look at it annually.”

On Bois Forte, which opened its wild rice harvest on Nett Lake on September 14, only band members are granted licenses. This year wild rice on that lake took a blow—literally—just before the harvest opened, when a hailstorm hit the area on Wednesday September 11. After assessing damage to the wild rice, the tribal resources department has allowed the harvest, but restricted some areas.

On-reservation harvesting at both Bois Forte and Fond du Lac includes days of no harvest in order to rest the rice beds. The day off comes every couple of days at Bois Forte and every other day at Fond du Lac. All ricing, even off-reservation in Minnesota, requires that harvest sticks be smooth, rounded, cedar rods or sticks no longer than 32 inches, and used by hand. Boats cannot be longer than 17 feet or wider than 38 inches and must be propelled only by push poles or paddles, no motors. Similar restrictions are in place for Wisconsin, where the ricing also began this month.

In Wisconsin, according to Peter David, a wild rice specialist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, it was hard to gauge the season’s harvest.

“Overall the crop did not look especially good, but it seems like where it was good, some of it was very good, and we have been getting a number of reports of good harvests,” he said. “I think people who scouted a bit and waited for the rice to ripen often did well; more casual ricers may have found themselves in a more hit-or-miss situation. I also think it was a year that reiterated the idea that the thickest beds do not always produce the most seed. Finally, it’s a year where the harvest season may stretch out a bit longer than usual, at least if folks keep at it.”

The wild ricing season, depending on weather and conditions, can begin as early as August and end in October, although individual on-reservation seasons generally last about two weeks.

On the Fond du Lac Reservation, Perch Lake ricing is reserved for elders 55 years and up. When Fond du Lac opened the harvest on September 6, it started as it traditionally does with ricing for subsistence use only, reducing that from four days to two. On the third day of harvest, the rice could be sold to the tribe, which buys a few tons at $4 a pound for use as seed for restoration projects or to be processed for donation to community events, feasts and charities. About 500 pounds annually are sold in the tribal convenience store and gift shops.

However, the first day of purchases by the Fond Du Lac Band this year were down, said Howes. Usually the band buys 8,000 pounds on the first sell day, and this year only 5,276 pounds were purchased the first day, he said. Forty-one ricing parties were out that day.

At Bois Forte, tribally harvested wild rice is sold online. Find rules and harvest updates for northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota at the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission website.