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Wild rice forecast looks promising, despite decades-long decline

Wisconsin DNR

Wild rice is ready to be harvested in northern Wisconsin. Despite a decades-long decline in the crop, harvesters are optimistic about this year’s outlook.

It’s the time of year when Anishinaabe people take to the lakes with canoes and rice knockers to harvest manoomin, or wild rice.

After a mild summer, the forecast for the crop this year is looking good.

“Rice beds, density-wise, are looking pretty good,” says Joe Graveen, who manages the Lac du Flambeau tribe’s wild rice program.

Wild rice has been declining in the region for at least the past 20 years.

While years like this are cause for optimism, Graveen says good years don’t necessarily mean the trend is reversing.

“You could have a really good wild rice bed one good year,” he says, “and then you could have four, five, six, seven, even nine years where it’s really, really bad.”

He says part of the problem is an increase in extreme weather events – a symptom of climate change.

“We’ve seen more of these frequent storms, heavy downpours, stronger winds that can knock the rice down,” he says.

But there are other factors at play too.

Scientists say the success of wild rice also depends on water levels, water nutrients, temperature and human activity.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources added four lakes to its wild rice harvest date regulation list this year, including Island Lake in Vilas County.

Graveen says that move matters because too many people were trying to harvest the rice before it was ripe.

We have a lot of new ricers out there,” he says. “A lot of people were going in way too early, before the rice was even ripe enough to pick.”

He says harvesting wild rice has become more popular in recent years. While he’s happy to see a revival in the important cultural tradition, he says it does require increased outreach and education.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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