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Wild rice is starting to grow on Spur Lake in Oneida County for the first time in nearly two decades

Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin
A still from the film "Return to Spur Lake: Bringing Back the Food that Grows on Water" by filmmaker Finn Ryan of Nathan Podany at Spur Lake.

Spur Lake is a 113-acre undeveloped lake in eastern Oneida County where wild rice used to be plentiful, but that changed about two decades ago.

When Nathan Podany first started as a hydrologist for the Sokaogon Chippewa Community, a rice chief took him to Spur Lake.

“[The rice chief] talked about the tribal chief driving them to the lake so they could have a rice camp and how important that lake was,” said Podany. “Talking to some of these elders, who may remember being at Spur Lake, remember harvesting, but it's been so long. It's kind of tough for them to recall, like, ‘how was that year? Was it a good year, was it a poor year?’”

Podany says people now in their 30s or 40s have little to no memory coming to Spur Lake.

Decline & return of wild rice

It’s not just Spur Lake facing this issue. Wild rice has been on the decline regionally for decades.

Podany says wild rice or manoomin is a strong, but fickle plant.

“Seemingly, annually, we're losing production in individual lakes, but also cumulatively, in general across the region. Whether it's low water a few years ago, where you couldn't even go out and harvest because we were seeing mud flats, or five or six years ago, we had such high water that a large rain event of six-plus inches could just remove the whole stand of rice from the lake,” said Podany.

Climate change, disease, boating activity, and waterfowl can all impact wild rice negatively.

Wisconsin DNR District Ecologist for North Central Wisconsin Carly Lapin says in the case of Spur Lake rising water levels was the likely cause of decline.

“There was a long term increase in water levels on Spur Lake, likely resulting from some modifications to the stream channel downstream,” said Lapin. “We believe probably recovery of beaver populations coinciding with that probably resulted in very gradual water level increases to the point where it was too deep for rice.”

Wild rice generally needs between one to three feet of water to grow. Podany says 10 to 30 inches is better.

Spur Lake working group

Over the last several years, several agencies and tribes formed a working group to try and restore wild rice. It includes the DNR, the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Mole Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

WXPR shared some of those efforts in 2020 as part of The Stream.

Ben Meyer
DNR regional ecologist Carly Lapin uses a tool to remove lily pads.

They removed perennial vegetation and reseeded wild rice in the area. Some of that work was with hand tools.

They also brought in equipment referred to as a swamp devil. Podany described it as a rototiller on a floating barge.

Different techniques were tried on each of the four roughly 1-acre plots on the lake.

“Remove vegetation reseed; remove vegetation, don't reseed; leave vegetation and reseed, so that's just saying, ‘Hey, can we just throw seed out here and maybe rice comes back and it will out compete plants?” and then that control. There's four different prescriptions,” said Podany.

Bathymetry and hydrologic studies were conducted. Teams replaced a nearby culvert, removed beavers, and cleared old beaver dams to improve stream flow.

That work was completed in 2022. The work group is now in its second year of monitoring the results.

Between that work and lower water levels, wild rice has been germinating in all the plots, with the best growth in the one where they removed vegetation and reseeded.

“We're all guilty of dreaming of this lake really coming back. But we also know that restoration’s really difficult. So just seeing some plants growing last year was really exciting,” said Podany.

More challenges

The ultimate goal is for the wild rice to grow and reseed itself. Spur Lake is not there yet, but it still can with time.

The wild rice is also growing in only about six of the 100-plus acres of the lake.

“If this is successful, and we hope it is, we have to address that fact to how are we going to maybe bring the machine out and treat 80 to 100 acres? That's a lot more work,” said Podany.

It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of wild rice seed. Podany says it takes at least 50 pounds of seed per acre. That seed is also in high demand. As previously mentioned, wild rice has been on the decline regionally. There are other efforts to restore wild rice in lakes all across Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

“Depending on the year, it might not be available. People drive across the state to Minnesota, people from Michigan drive to Wisconsin,” said Podany. “It's not uncommon for people to drive hours to pick up this product so they can try to restore their lakes because if you don't have seed to reseed the lake all your efforts are kind of for naught.”

Ben Meyer
Spur Lake

Humans also aren’t the only ones after the seed.

A new challenge presenting itself on the Spur Lake project is geese and swans eating the wild rice seeds.

“Roughly 300 pounds-plus of wild rice went on to that lake and essentially amounted to bird feed, unfortunately,” said Podany. “But we learned a lot and there's value in that as well.”

The St. Louis River estuary that runs along Duluth and Superior began euthanizing Canada geese in 2023 as part of an effort to restore wild rice there.

At Spur Lake, they’re experimenting with floating fencing to keep the waterfowl out.

Both Podany and Lapin agree all their efforts are worth it to bring back a wild rice source that once brought in Tribes from around the region.

“Wild rice or manoomin is a culturally significant being for local tribal communities. It's a source of sustenance for people and for animals. It's an important ecological component for lots of creatures, and it has value in and of itself,” said Lapin. “Because of its regional significance, it isn't found in many other places in the globe. We feel it's important for a lot of reasons and that's why we are focusing on it.”

Podany hopes that other people working to restore wild rice will eventually be able to learn from the Spur Lake project, just as he hopes they can learn from what others are doing.

“We oftentimes work in a silo. I mentioned a lot of our partners and I think we've done a good job and I'm very thankful for the DNR for starting this and reaching out to us and other tribes in the region in creating this Spur Lake working group. But in some ways, we're kind of siloed. We have our blinders on. We're looking at Spur Lake, and we can only concentrate on so many projects,” said Podany.

Film Screening

People will have the opportunity to learn more about the efforts to restore wild rice at a film screening this Wednesday, May 15th at noon.

The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin is premiering a short film called “Return to Spur Lake: Bringing Back the Food that Grows on Water" by Finn Ryan.

“What I would like for people to take away from the film is the value of manoomin for lots of different reasons. The fact that it's an important being on our landscape, and also what people can do on an individual level to promote it and protect it,” said Lapin.

People can join a virtual screening of it followed by a Q&A with conservationists.

You can register for the screening here.

“I just want them to know and understand and appreciate the plant more because it deserves our appreciation and attention and the more people know about it, I think the more they'll care,” said Podany.

Editor's Note: Carly Lapin is a WXPR Board Member. The Board of Directors is responsible for management and operation of White Pine Community Broadcasting Inc and has no influence over programming.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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