Indigenous Communities Work to Keep Wild Rice from Disappearing

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

wild rice kakagon sloughs bad river
Wild rice growing in the Kakagon Sloughs, a wetland off Lake Superior. Credit: Bad River Natural Resources Department

For centuries, wild rice has been harvested in the shallow waters of Lake Superior and nearby waters. The species and its distinctive grain is a vital part of the Anishinaabe culture, but climate change is threatening the plants with invasive species, extreme water levels and high winds.

Wild rice – known as manoomin or manomin in the Anishinaabemowin language – has a number of vulnerabilities to climate change based on its physiology, according to the 2016 Seventh Generation Climate Monitoring Plan issued by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians. The tribe’s reservation includes the Kakagon/Bad River Sloughs, a wetland area extending into Lake Superior on the Wisconsin side that contains about 13 percent of all coastal wetlands in the lake’s basin, providing important habitat for fish, aquatic mammals, migratory birds, and wild rice.

Too Much Water Can Breed Fungus

According to the plan, wild rice needs low and high water level years to out-compete other species, but extreme water levels in either direction can adversely impact the species, either by drowning the plant or by reducing its beds to mudflats. The latter happened in 2007 due to a low-water event, which Climate Change Coordinator Devon Brock-Montgomery of the Bad River Natural Resources Department said was the first dramatic example of climate change there.

According to the Bad River Band’s traditional ecological knowledge, climate-related changes to wild rice’s habitat date back to the 1950s. On a more immediate time scale, anticipated increased heavy rain events could cause rapid water level increases that uproot the plants, particularly in early summer while the species is at its floating-leaf stage, which happened in June 2012.

That 2012 storm caused massive losses of wild rice across western Lake Superior region, into the Duluth area where the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reside, said Peter David, wildlife biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. It was followed by another major storm in the same area in 2016, also causing major losses.

“These 100-year floods are becoming (more frequent),” David said.

Heavy rains also can wash more nutrients from farm fields and lawns into wetlands, which can cause turbidity and algal blooms, David said. That can hurt the germination and development of wild rice plants.

More dramatically, the changing climate appears to be promoting the growth of a fungal disease called brownspot. David said it is ubiquitous to the region, and in the right conditions it will show up on wild rice plants. In wet conditions where the plants don’t get a chance to dry off, the fungus can start growing and wipe out seed production.


brownspot disease wild rice
Compared to a healthy 2009 season, top, an outbreak of brownspot disease, bottom, overtook wild rice stands by Lower Dean Lake in Minnesota in 2010. Credit: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission

“In the first 20 years of my career, (brownspot disease) didn’t have a significant impact, but then in 2005 it was the first time we had a regional outbreak of it,” David said. “In 2010 we had a massive outbreak in Wisconsin which led to the poorest harvest season I’ve ever seen.”

Wind patterns have been increasing in recent decades as well, and since wild rice is wind-pollinated it needs a mild summer wind to be most successful, the Bad River plan notes. High winds or long periods of calm in the summer can interfere with it successfully pollinating. And invasive species such as carp, Phragmites, invasive cattails and purple loosestrife can kill the wild rice plants or out-compete it.

Paradoxically, a lengthier growing season from global warming can harm wild rice, which evolved for harsher conditions. Warmer winters may shorten the seeds’ dormancy period, which reduces the germination rate the next year. At the same time, it gives competing invasive plants an advantage over the wild rice by giving them more time to grow. Prolonged dry conditions also can kill wild rice seeds.

While climate models still have a great deal of uncertainty on what future water levels might look like, there is a clear trend indicating that warmer air temperatures, alongside more severe storms dropping more water in short bursts, are developing in the Great Lakes region. Observed trends also indicate that summertime multi-day heat waves are increasing, while the number of extremely cold weather events in the winter are decreasing. Models suggest a trend toward warmer nights and more humidity, which would fuel brownspot outbreaks. Adapting to climate change will be a necessity throughout North America, and in the case of indigenous communities around Lake Superior, that will include precautions to make sure wild rice continues to survive in a future of potential stressors.

Safeguarding Wild Rice for Future Generations

The Bad River Band came up with several potential approaches in its climate monitoring plan to try and reduce the degree of threats wild rice populations are facing. These range from improving water quality in wetlands and streams that discharge into wild rice beds to improving riparian buffer zones and connections to the floodplain to reduce flashiness around the rice beds, planting wind and storm resistant vegetation to protect rice beds from high winds, and carp control measures such as protective fencing. As a worst-case scenario, the plan suggests collecting wild rice seeds for long-term seed-bank storage in case something occurs to wipe out the wild rice population. Brock-Montgomery said the tribe is fleshing out remaining data gaps through continued monitoring, which will be used to determine what adaptation measures will be pursued and when.

First Nations in Ontario have similarly been concerned with climate change’s impact on wild rice. Participants at a December 2016 Northern Ontario First Nation Climate Change Workshop found that, among other impacts, climate change is diminishing wild rice harvests due to changing swampland: drying out in some areas and flooding in others. The First Nations attendees indicated that community-driven climate change adaptation efforts have been underway for more than a decade, including food security and access to traditional foods and monitoring/data collection.

However, David said wild rice is adapted to such a limited habitat that addressing stressors will be difficult. At some locations, mechanical adaptations – such as remote water level sensors or increased spillway capacity on dams – could help deal with some likely climate impacts, but these approaches are expensive and limited in scope.

Habitat restoration can go a long way toward recovering from the historical losses in rice abundance driven by other causes. David said rice abundance in Wisconsin has improved about 25 percent due to habitat restoration compared to 20 years ago, but now all these beds are facing new threats from climate change.

He said there has been growing interest from people in Canada and the United States in better stewardship of the wild rice. New relationships and partnerships are forming, and people across the basin are working out the best ways to collectively address these stressors.

“For (indigenous peoples) there’s a spiritual commitment to this rice, an appreciation of this gift from the Creator,” David said. “This is a plant that only grows in a small portion of the world.  We who are fortunate enough to live in this area have to be responsible stewards of this precious gift.”

bald eagle wild rice bad river
An immature bald eagle is perched in the Kakagon Sloughs wetland. Credit: Bad River Natural Resources Department.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

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