When summertime begins to transition to autumn in northern Wisconsin, towards the end of August and early September, Native Americans wait with anticipation for the Wild Rice Moon, the sign it is harvest time for the grain of such cultural importance to local tribes.
The generations-old tradition of the wild rice harvest represents a significant cultural event in the lives of Wisconsin’s Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Menominee tribes. At one time wild rice served as one of the most important Native foods for these northern tribes. Families would gather in camps at rice lakes to harvest and process the grain, as well as to rekindle social relationships.
Today, wild rice is still collected by traditional methods. Canoes are poled through the rice bed as a second person uses cedar sticks to pull the stalks into the boat and knock the rice off.
Unfortunately, the distribution of wild rice throughout northern Wisconsin has greatly diminished from its historic range, lessening the opportunities for successful harvest. Reasons for the decline include the negative impacts of pollution, recreational boating, and the unintentional introduction of invasive plant species. Perhaps the most significant reason for the diminished harvest is the fluctuations of water depth.
Wild rice grows in shallow water under some very specific requirements. Even subtle changes to water depth during the critical early growing period can destroy a rice bed for a season. Continued water depth problems eventually eliminate wild rice from a lake altogether. Beaver dams blocking the outlets of rice lakes commonly contribute to fluctuating water depth. Removal of beaver dams often serve as a critical component of wild rice restoration.
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Wildlife Services (WS) in Wisconsin provides expertise in beaver damage management for wild rice recovery and maintenance, through a partnership with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), individual tribes, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR). WS monitors 23 wild rice lakes spread across northern Wisconsin for the presence of beaver dams. On-the-ground surveys of each lake are conducted in late winter or early spring, prior to the wild rice growing season. Any beaver dams discovered at lake outlets are removed, thereby preventing unnecessary fluctuations of water depth and allowing the wild rice to grow naturally. Lakes are monitored throughout the growing season for any increase in beaver activity. Similar projects are undertaken by WS in Minnesota for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Chippewa National Forest.
WS’ efforts have contributed to the resurgence of wild rice beds on many lakes, helping to ensure successful wild rice harvests for the future.