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Dry conditions may have boosted Minnesota’s wild rice crop this year, but climate change leaves the future uncertain

Wild rice thrives in water depths of one-to-three feet, though low water can make actually harvesting the grains a challenge.

Members of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe Tribe shown harvesting rice on Mud Lake, located on the Leech River.
Members of the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe Tribe shown harvesting rice on Mud Lake, located on the Leech River.

For years, Nancy Schuldt has taken part in the time-honored tradition of harvesting wild rice in northern Minnesota. And while this year’s historic drought has actually helped in yielding a good crop of wild rice according to many experts, accessing the wild rice this year has proven difficult in some regions.

Nancy Schuldt
Nancy Schuldt
For the Anishinaabe across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, wild rice is a sacred food and harvesting the rice is a tradition spanning generations.  Year after year, members of the tribe will navigate the shallow water beds with a long pole in a canoe, using ricing sticks, or “knockers” as they are sometimes called, to strike the grains into the boat. But with water levels below a foot in some water beds, some of the wild rice simply could not be harvested.

“My husband and I almost got stuck,” Schuldt said of her unprecedented ricing experience this year.

In fact the water levels were so low this year, Schuldt says her husband had to hop out of the canoe and push.

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It’s definitely the lowest [water levels] we’ve seen in recent years,” said Darren Vogt, the resource management division director for the 1854 Treaty Authority, an inter-tribal natural resource program. And while he stressed that low water is good for wild rice, water levels below a certain threshold can make harvesting difficult.

“We did hear a lot of that this year, where some locations had the rice crop that was good, but getting access there during harvest time was difficult.” Vogt said.

Darren Vogt
Darren Vogt
For both Schuldt and Vogt, it isn’t the drought that is worrisome — wild rice thrives in shallow waters of one to three feet. It is the increasing intensity of droughts and flooding, hallmarks of climate change, that they, along with other experts, worry will affect the state’s wild rice beds. Schuldt, who serves as the water projects coordinator for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, has been monitoring the water quality standards for the tribe for twenty years, said in recent years she has seen more extreme droughts and flooding than in the past.

The changing storm patterns and climate change are definitely probably the biggest concern for wild rice,” Vogt said. “What are the changing seasons, water level, storms, temperature  going to do for wild rice?”

Shrinking habitat

Wild rice habitat has already shrunk to a small fraction of its natural range — the water beds where the plant grows are only found along the edges of the Great Lakes. With climate change Vogt says scientists are trying to determine if the range of where wild rice grows can change as well.

Over the past century, there has already been a documented decline in the crop in both Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“We’ve definitely lost wild rice over time between development and changes in lakes, damming recreation, and changes in water quality. All these things have, you know, shrunk the success of wild rice across the state,” Vogt said.

Gene-Hua Crystal Ng, a hydrologist with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science, estimates over the past century, there has  probably been a loss of about a third of wild rice strands.

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And while some of the reasons for the decline of the wild rice beds are obvious, Ng said, some are not so obvious.

“Wild rice is very sensitive, so we’re trying to understand all the various environmental factors that interact with each other.” Ng said. “Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s because they drained a wetland right next to a wild rice lake. Other cases, it’s mining where there’s the whole sulfate issue. But there’s actually some where it just kind of has us stumped.”

Gene-Hua Crystal Ng
Gene-Hua Crystal Ng
Ng is part of an interdisciplinary project with other scientists from the University of Minnesota who are working in collaboration with tribes on understanding the environmental factors that affect wild rice.

In August, the team received a grant from the United States Geological Survey to examine climate change impacts on wild rice.

Many of the tribes have done their own climate change assessments, examining both the direct impacts while also posing questions, and have identified wild rice as one of the more vulnerable species up north.

“It’s stumped the tribes as to why wild rice is now declining there and climate change is definitely one of the questions,” Ng said. “We know that wild rice is really high sensitivity to water levels. So that’s definitely one question. It’s also very sensitive to temperatures.”

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Wild rice is both sensitive to winter temperatures as well as summer and needs a hard freeze to activate the seeds for germination the next year, a concern for wild rice experts.

“In Minnesota, when you look at the global climate model, you actually see that some of the highest increases in temperature predicted for winter months,” Ng said.

As for the significance of the strands themselves, Ng said working with tribes’ wild rice experts has taught her to think beyond the life cycle of the wild rice, which is a federally protected crop.

“It’s the cultural aspect that we need to think about. Even though there was a decent crop of wild rice, people actually couldn’t get out to it, because they need to get in their canoes in order to harvest the wild rice. So if it’s too shallow, you can’t actually rice.”