Tribal members and scientists team up to figure out why Wisconsin's wild rice population is declining
Water laps against a tangle of weeds at the shoreline of Flambeau Lake in Lac du Flambeau.
Thick gray clouds hang overhead, but the weather doesn’t keep the wildlife at bay.
In the distance, a family of loons dips under the water. An eagle perches on a dying tree.
One thing is missing from this scene that would have been there hundreds of years ago, though – wild rice.
“All this used to be wild rice out over here,” Joe Graveen, a wild rice technician with the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, says, gesturing over the lake. “There used to be a big wild rice bed over there.”
Graveen says wild rice is extremely important to Ojibwe tribes. It’s how they ended up in the Great Lakes region.
“It was told in our prophecies that we were supposed to go where the food grew on water,” he says.
But local wild rice populations are declining, and they have been for years.
“Last year we had maybe 60 pounds of finished rice,” Graveen says. “The year before we had a little over 80 pounds. And the year before that we probably had about 120 pounds of finished rice, so something’s going on.”
In 2012, researchers with the University of Wisconsin - Madison found that “watersheds with wild rice have declined by 32% since the early 1900s.”
The crop is now mostly limited to bodies of water in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota.
And the decline has continued into more recent years too.
The Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Commission has monitored 40 waterways in the Wisconsin ceded territories since 1985.
In a report released last year, the commission found that the number of acres of wild rice on these waterways has been cut in half since the monitoring started.
However, the reason for the decline isn’t obvious.
Crystal Ng is part of a team of researchers with the University of Minnesota who started studying the decline of wild rice in the Great Lakes region about four years ago.
Water levels play a major part in the success of wild rice, so Ng wanted to study how water levels interact with nutrients to impact the plant.
But she quickly found the answer isn’t so simple.
“Water level is a really important part – I’m a hydrologist, so that’s what I came into look at – but maybe it’s water levels interacting with nutrients and sediments,” she says. “How is that going to change when infrastructure changes? How is that going to change with climate change and forests changing around wild rice lakes?”
Ng and one of her research partners, Mike Dockry, say those are factors they didn’t think about before developing relationships with tribal partners like Graveen.
“For example, how did logging a hundred years ago impact wild rice today?” Dockry questions. “Who’s asking that? The tribes are. Were the scientists? Probably not.”
Dockry and Ng are now much more aware of how the physical elements of water levels and nutrients are impacted by human actions over time.
In the past, that’s included the construction of dams for logging – many of which were constructed without tribal input and drowned lakes full of wild rice.
Now, and moving into the future, one of the biggest threats to wild rice is climate change.
Extreme weather events, greater fluctuations between low and high water levels, and changing water temperatures are all factors driven by climate change that could determine the future of wild rice.
It’s a future that Joe Graveen is willing to fight for.
“We’ll fight to protect what’s important to us, and manoomin, wild rice, is important to us.”
For Graveen, partnering with researchers like Ng and Dockry is part of that fight.
For the researchers, understanding the decline of wild rice is part of a bigger fight against climate change.
“Dealing with climate change, you can’t do that by yourself anymore, it just doesn’t work,” Dockry says. “Then add in a voice that hasn’t been listened to by the scientific community – the tribal voices that really have a lot to add to the science of what’s happening. Because of them, we’re having new insights. Science is growing.”