Monitoring Manoomin with the Wild Rice Crew

by Audrey Hoey-KummerowDuring the two-day celebration of Trout Lake Station’s 100-year anniversary, Sagen Quale, an Agroecology master’s student at UW-Madison, gave a talk about her research on manoomin, which is the Ojibwe word for wild rice. Sagen, who is leading Trout Lake Station’s Wild Rice Crew, explained that the word, manoomin, translates to “good berry” and is both a critically important part of Ojibwe culture and a prized ingredient in meals.

But manoomin populations in Wisconsin have been declining due to a number of potential causes—from climate change to waterfowl eating young plants to water level changes. Because of this, it is important to study lakes where manoomin is abundant and places where it is scarce to determine what conditions promote healthy manoomin populations and how to preserve it. The wild rice research is a collaborative effort with Lac du Flambeau Tribal Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WiDNR), but Trout Lake Station heads up all the data collection.

Little did I know during Sagen’s talk that I would soon spend a day as part of her crew.  One morning, I received a text asking if I could help Sagen and Eliana Cook with their sampling because one of their crew members was working with the WiDNR that day. I had been looking forward to going out with the wild rice crew so of course I agreed. After suiting up in boots and a raincoat, we made our way to Island Lake. I was both excited and a little nervous about what the day had in store. With 21 points to sample on the lake and most of them tackled the day before, our goal was to head to the remaining sample sites and collect data.

A lake with wild rice growing on it.
Young wild rice plants move from the “floating leaf stage” where the ribbon-like leaves lay flat on the lake’s surface, to the “aerial shoot” stage of their development. Mature plants will rise 2-8 feet above the water surface. Photo: A. Hoey-Kummerow

We headed out onto the lake in one of the station’s small motorboats. My tasks were to write all our measurements down and use a Pro DSS to measure the dissolved oxygen levels and temperature at each stop. The Pro DSS, widely used in limnology, can measure various parameters such as pH, conductivity, turbidity, and chlorophyll at different depths. Eliana and Sagen alternated responsibilities for the other part of the sampling, which involved tossing a floating square made from PVC pipe into the water. Scientists call this quadrat research and Sagen and Eliana used it to document the percentage of floating rice, bare areas, thatch, and rice within each square to get a better sense of how wild rice was doing in the lake. They also measured stem height, counted submerged rice plants and calculated the average number of leaves per plant.

The weather that day was anything but cooperative, rain and cold made the work challenging. We also bent one of our paddles getting the boat into the water, which made navigating to the sampling points a struggle as we frequently got stuck on unseen obstacles in the shallow water, making the task feel like a true test of perseverance. 

Our second outing, however, was a marked improvement. This time I got to join the whole team, as Marin Danz was back from WiDNR duty. Our stop for round two was Aurora Lake, which was filled with wild rice. The abundance of rice meant we had to switch to canoes, as a motorboat would have been impractical and damaging to the delicate ecosystem, since wake from a motor can uproot and kill wild rice plants..

On this trip, our focus was sediment sampling. Paddling out to the designated points proved tricky due to the mucky conditions. Once we reached a point, we measured the water depth, marked it with a rubber band on the sampling tube, and then placed another band 30 centimeters above to guide our sediment collection.

With three of us stabilizing the canoes, the fourth person carefully inserted the tube into the water until it reached the second band. Creating suction with a cap, we lifted the tube and poured the contents into a bucket – 30 centimeters’ worth of sediment. We then drained the water and placed the sediment on a tray so that we could sift through it for rice seeds. Each seed’s length was recorded, and we noted if the sediment smelled like sulfide, which would indicate a lack of oxygen. We did this four times for each of the four points on Aurora. Despite finding mostly husks, Sagen assured us this was a positive sign, indicating that the seeds were likely germinating.

A hans holding a single seed.
Sagen holds a wild rice seed. Photo: A. Hoey-Kummerow

As part of our effort to minimize our impact, we returned all sediment and seeds back to the lake. This principle of leaving no trace was crucial, reflecting the cultural and environmental importance of manoomin. 

Even though both of the lakes that I went to with the wild rice crew had abundant populations of manoomin, the experience was a good reminder of why wild rice needs protection. Its significance extends beyond ecological benefits; it holds deep cultural value for the Ojibwe people. Ensuring its preservation sometimes means prioritizing it over recreational activities like boating, which can harm the delicate habitats where wild rice thrives. 

Reflecting on those days with the wild rice crew, I am filled with a deep appreciation for the dedication and meticulous care involved in monitoring and protecting manoomin. It’s a reminder of the balance between human activity and the preservation of nature’s treasures.