Monitoring Manoomin: A Collaborative Study on Wild Rice Lake

Tall stalks of green wild rice grow out of the water

by Maddie Gamble

Last Monday, I woke early to join our wild rice crew for a day of sampling on Wild Rice Lake in Manitowish Waters. I knew the day would be a chance to learn more about this important native species and was excited to get out on the water. 

After a quick boat ride out to the wild rice bed, visiting Georgia Institute of Technology graduate student Eric Greenlee and I hopped into a canoe. The Wild Rice summer field crew, consisting of UW-Madison students Ally Kundinger, Sagen Quale, and Moira Keith switched out the outboard motor on their john boat for a pair of rowing oars. Since the wake from a motorized boat can uproot wild rice plants and kill them, we had to take things slow. As they rowed along, thunder rumbled in the distance – nature’s clock was ticking on this sampling adventure. 

Three women in a boat lean over the side to inspect wild rice plants growing.
Sagen, Moira and Ally sampling one of their plots in Wild Rice Lake. Photo: M. Gamble

Manoomin (wild rice) has been harvested for hundreds of years in northern Wisconsin. Native American tribes, such as the Ojibwe and Menominee, originally gathered wild rice in the early autumn, viewing it as a relative, or a non-living being, that is resilient and holds many life teachings. One teaching is patience, as one must wait until manoominike-giizis (Ojibwe), or wild rice moon, to harvest the grain at the correct maturity.

While Indigenous people in Wisconsin were moved onto reservations in the early and mid 1800’s, they never lost their connection to wild rice, taking care of the beds left to them on their reservation waterways and retaining their rights to gather it in what came to be called the “Ceded Territories.” Today, the species remains vital to the Indigenous way of life as Tribes across the state work to preserve and restore manoomin populations. 

Trout Lake Station has partnered with several communities on its wild rice research, including the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. This partnership fosters enthusiastic efforts to restore declining wild rice populations while preserving the cultural connections to the species. It allows researchers to learn about the history of the plant, in hopes of implementing the most effective and ethical sampling methods. 

For us, those methods involved an electronic mapping system that had plotted out 21 points within Wild Rice Lake’s rice bed for us to row to. These plots allow researchers to return to approximately the same spot on each sampling day as they gather consistent long-term data. 

A woman in a boat collects wild rice samples.
Ally collects data from one of the wild rice plots. Photo: M. Gamble

At each plot, the team took measurements of things like temperature, dissolved oxygen, water depth, percent of floating and submersed vegetation, percent wild rice, and percent thatched (dead) rice. If rice was present, data like height, number of stems, and whether the plant was flowering or fruiting were recorded as well. The crew members alternated between rowing, collecting data, and recording findings to efficiently work through the wild rice bed. 

As I canoed along in my boat, Ally pointed out wild rice plants that had been chomped on by animals passing through. This indicated increased levels of herbivory in the lake–meaning that animals like to eat it, too. Geese and swans can be especially detrimental to a wild rice bed as they feast on new growth. 

Wild Rice Lake had the highest levels of herbivory of any lake they have surveyed this summer. Still, not all hope was lost. Amongst the signs of intense herbivory and dense amount of duckweed floating on the surface, we spotted one of the first flowering wild rice plants of the season, tinted a lighter green against the rest of the surrounding foliage. 

Wild rice to me has always simply been a delicious addition to any meal. I never thought of the physical and cultural beauty it represents. As I floated through the wild rice bed, I found myself stopping to take in its beauty and reflect on its meaning to different individuals. It also made me think about science.

When you think of science what comes to mind? Is it data or measurements? Research? What about people? Science is so much more than research and numbers–it’s about people and places, too. Our wild rice project here on station is a testimony to that. It involves a rich culture and a number of dedicated people to find solutions to complicated problems and highlights our research’s potential impact on the community.  

Trout Lake Stations’ wild rice project is about more than the restoration of the plant itself–it’s about helping restore an important part of local culture–as well as a beautiful ecosystem.