Easily Overlooked, Wild Rice Has Big Cultural and Ecological Impact

by Cassie Gauthier — When you are at a lake, do you ever stop to consider the plants growing along the shoreline, or in the water as you drive past in your boat, or next to your feet as you swim? Have you ever considered why the plant is there, how it might be helping the other organisms in the lake, or even be beneficial for you?

To be honest, I am often more interested in the fish I am trying to catch, too busy in conversation with people I am with, or just simply preoccupied with other thoughts that I fail to notice all of the unique plants lakes have to offer.

Perhaps no aquatic plant offers more than wild rice. It is the food that the Ojibwe and Menominee people found as they moved into the Great Lakes region hundreds of years ago and became an invaluable resource, both spiritually and nutritionally. Wild rice has many important benefits for the lake ecosystems it grows in – providing habitat for aquatic insects, shelter for fish and food for waterfowl.

It is also easily overlooked.

This time of year, wild rice is just one skinny stem that grows from the bottom of shallow waters up to the surface where it floats sideways on the top. It can grow around boat landings and sometimes when it is noticed, that’s because it’s tangled in some annoyed boater’s prop.

Gretchen Gerrish rows the wild rice crew to one of their survey locations. Photo: C. Gauthier

Sadly, wild rice populations in Wisconsin have been on the decline for decades, a fact that hasn’t escaped the notice of Susan Knight, Trout Lake Station’s aquatic plant expert. She has always loved looking at wild rice in area lakes, Susan says, and ever since she has noticed it wasn’t doing well, she has had a burning desire to try to figure out what is going on.

Now, Susan gets to spend her whole summer doing just that along with Trout Lake Station director, Gretchen Gerrish, and Northern Michigan University undergraduate, Erin Matula. Together, the team is in charge of collecting data about the wild rice on six local lakes as part of a big research project involving the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, North Lakeland Discovery Center, and the ecological consulting firm, Onterra.

The Trout Lake Station crew has 21 designated GPS points they will sample every other week this summer on lakes across the Northwoods. The team pile into a row boat and, once they arrive at a GPS point ,the rower holds the boat in place as another member throws a square made out of PVC pipe into the water. That member then counts all of the wild rice plants within the square as well as measures the average height of the wild rice plants, determines what other plants are within the square, assesses what the sediment on the bottom of the lake is like, and makes a few other observations.

On warmer days, you may find the member that is counting the plants leaning over the boat to stick their head in the water with large goggles on to get a closer look at all of the plants. Erin Matula, who just joined Trout Lake Station this summer, says this is one of her favorite things to do while on the lake sampling.

Susan Knight holds the boat in place while Erin Matula counts rice plants. Photo: C. Gauthier

The crew is hoping that their data this summer will start to narrow in on how they might best be able to help wild rice survive in the Northwoods lakes they are currently in. There are many hypotheses about what could be hurting wild rice, but knowing how each factor interacts and which ones are most important will be crucial information especially if the populations continue to decrease.

For now, the best we can do to take care of this treasured plant is to watch for and obey signs at boat launches that ask you to be careful of your destruction to wild rice, understand its significance and share it with the people you know, and most of all be respectful of it and leave it where it is growing to ensure the plant stays healthy were it still grows in our lakes.

Next time you are at a lake remember how important plants can be and make note of which ones are around you. Ponder them and the significance each of those species may have for the animals and humans that use them. It is truly amazing that a plant as small and easy to pass by as wild rice is so significant to everything that crosses its path.