St Louis River Estuary: The stories and the science

Wild Rice Restoration

Wild Rice in the St. Louis River Estuary. Click to zoom.

Wild Rice in the St. Louis River Estuary.

The St. Louis River Estuary is the largest coastal freshwater wetland ecosystem on Lake Superior and is the most significant source of biological productivity for the western half of the lake, providing critical habitat for fish and wildlife communities. Historically, wild rice grew in abundance in shallow embayments and backwater areas of the estuary below the Fond du Lac dam.

History

The abundance of wild rice in the estuary has been reduced significantly since the early 20th Century. Currently, only remnant beds of wild rice exist. Human activities, including log transport, milling of lumber, manufacturing, shipbuilding, dredging, wastewater discharge and channelization of the river contributed to the overall decline of rice-producing wetlands. Current restoration efforts have addressed many of these stresses. However, additional factors inhibit the natural recovery of these wetlands, including wave wash from boat traffic, shoreline alteration, and the introduction of non-native species such as purple loosestrife, common carp and rusty crayfish. Foraging by migratory waterfowl may also be restricting the natural recovery of wild rice.

Prior work on wild rice restoration within the estuary relied on assumptions regarding the best conditions for wild rice, including shallow water, low velocity current, vulnerabilities to physical disturbance, competition from native and non-native plants, and consumption by waterfowl. Restoration proceeded based on identification of sites with appropriate conditions, introducing seed, and controlling competition, wave action and predation during establishment.

What is happening now?

Wild rice restoration is a muti-agency effort in the St. Louis River Estuary. Project partners include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (MNDNR), Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR), Minnesota Land Trust, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, The 1854 Treaty Authority, Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, St. Croix Tribe, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, University of Wisconsin Superior Lake Superior Research Institute, NOAA's Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, St. Louis River Alliance, and the Great Lakes Lifeways Institute. Funding partners for the project include the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and other Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding sources.

The MNDNR along with the Area of Concern wild rice restoration team recognized that a detailed evaluation of areas suitable for wild rice within the estuary was critical for efficient and strategic implementation of a wild rice restoration program. A report was produced in 2014 that evaluated the aquatic environment of the estuary and identified suitable locations for wild rice restoration. The report also provided restoration strategies for specific locations within the estuary.

The WDNR, MNDNR, and the Minnesota Land Trust, in partnership with the Fond du lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and the 1854 Treaty Authority, are restoring 250 acres of wild rice in 10 shallow bays downstream of the Fond du Lac Dam. This work will include site preparation, seeding, and management of wild rice. Site preparation and management involves cutting or mowing competing vegetation to give the wild rice a chance to grow along with fencing or deterring animals from browsing the rice while it is being established. These restoration efforts started in 2015. The St. Louis River Alliance has been holding a volunteer event for its members to help seen 10 acres of rice near Clough Island. If you are interested in becoming a member and volunteering, please visit the SLRA website.

On the Wisconsin side of the estuary, a wild rice restoration project in Allouez Bay has been ongoing since 2015. The bay was home to extensive beds of wild rice, but today only remnant beds remain. The goals of this three-year project are to enhance important foraging habitat for waterfowl and provide opportunities for the wild rice harvest in the bay. The restoration efforts will include seeding 25 acres in the shallow southeastern portion of Allouez Bay near the mouths of Bear Creek and the unnamed tributary to the east of Bear Creek. Exclosures will be constructed during the growing seasons around 10 acres of the restoration area to protect wild rice from feeding by waterfowl, carp, and muskrat. Invasive plant species in Allouez Bay like narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia), hybrid cattail (Typha x glauca), purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), will also be removed over 5 acres. The project is funded through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants from the Sustain Our Great Lakes program and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Great Lakes Coastal Program Partnership. Project partners include Douglas County, the University of Wisconsin Superior Lake Superior Research Institute, and the St. Croix Tribe, with assistance from nonprofit, state and federal partners.

In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency funded the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, in partnership with the Rivers2Lake program, and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to conduct an additional one-year wild rice restoration project in Allouez Bay. Rivers2Lake is a year-long educational program that uses inquiry-based learning in the Lake Superior watershed as a foundation for increased Great Lakes literacy and engagement for students. Teachers in the Rivers2Lake program receive extensive training and support. Eighth-, ninth- and tenth-grade students were involved in seeding an additional 5 acres of wild rice in Allouez Bay in 2015.

Restoration Timeline

  • 2014 – Wild Rice Study completed by Cardno Inc.
  • 2014 to 2025 – Wild rice seeding and management on up to 250 acres in the Area of Concern

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