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Turnout shows interest in wild rice recovery on once-premier lake remains high

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/14/16

SANDY TWP.— About three-dozen current and former users of Big Rice Lake turned out to weigh in on the future of what was once one of the region’s most productive wild rice lakes.

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Looking for answers

Turnout shows interest in wild rice recovery on once-premier lake remains high

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SANDY TWP.— About three-dozen current and former users of Big Rice Lake turned out to weigh in on the future of what was once one of the region’s most productive wild rice lakes.

Wildlife officials from the Department of Natural Resources called the meeting to hear from users in hopes that they might offer ideas on how to revive the lake’s wild rice before it disappears altogether.

Melissa Thompson, shallow lakes specialist at the Tower area DNR office, said it’s clear that the traditional methods that lake managers have used successfully on other rice lakes are not working on Big Rice. “We don’t know why that is,” said Thompson. “There are a whole lot of variables, but nothing we can pinpoint as the main reason.”

The lake’s rice crop has varied over the years, but has been consistently poor since 2005-06, when the DNR conducted a significant drawdown of water in advance of winter, in hopes of freezing out native pickerel weed, which was increasingly dominating large parts of the lake. In other lakes, such a method has usually sparked a wild rice recovery. But Thompson said that clearly has not been the case on Big Rice, where the drawdown appears to have made a bad situation much worse.

Many of those in attendance agreed, and suggested that the lake seemed to do better with less management, rather than more.

Denise Pieratos, a Bois Forte band member, asked why the DNR didn’t consult with band members about their experience on the lake, which dates back generations. “I’ve riced on that lake since I was a child,” she said. “It used to be deep. You couldn’t use a pole.”

Pieratos noted that the lake used to have the biggest rice kernels of any lake in the region. “You ruined it,” she said. “We had nine lakes we used to pick from and now the only one still producing is Nett Lake.”

Longtime lake resident Jerry Hovi, who had recently sent a petition to the DNR asking for higher water levels on the lake, agreed that the lake was deeper historically. He has provided the DNR with old photos, in one case dating back to the 1930s, showing a significantly higher water level on a large rock near the public landing on Hovi’s property. He said current water levels on the lake are about as low as they were during the 1976 drought, which had previously been the low point for water on the lake.

DNR officials said the attempt to freeze out pickerel weed had only marginal success. Other officials, like Mike Schrage, with the 1854 Authority, noted that periods of significantly higher water, such as following major rain events, has helped to reduce pickerel weed on other rice lakes.

Officials agreed that higher water levels might help, but suggested that allowing more natural fluctuations, with both high and low water, might be the best long-term approach. Schrage said that those fluctuations, which managers refer to as bounce, “tend to not favor perennial plants like pickerel weed.”

Some at the meeting pointed to the apparent decline in the muskrat population on the lake as another possible factor in the rice’s decline. Lake managers agreed that the activity of the muskrats helps to stir up the sediments and uproot pickerel weed, often for the construction of muskrat houses.

Officials appear to have largely ruled out water chemistry for the decline of rice in the lake. Thompson said lake water analysis shows the lake remains very low in sulfate, which is known to convert in lake sediments to sulfide, which is toxic to wild rice.

In the meantime, the agencies cooperating on the lake’s recovery (which include the DNR, 1854 Authority, U.S. Forest Service, and Fond du Lac) are continuing to pursue some other treatments, which appear to be having some benefit. Among those methods is the periodic shearing of pickerel weed using an air boat. According to Thompson, the shearing, typically done early in the summer, with a second shearing in late summer, appears to have helped significantly reduce pickerel weed in those areas where they have tested the procedure.

“We got the pickerel weed out, now we need the rice to come back,” said Thompson. They have had some success, said Thompson, by dragging a bedspring or heavy chains across the lake bottom. Thompson said the disturbance, or tilling, has been shown to stimulate the germination of rice seed, which can remain viable in the lake sediments for several years.

So far, DNR officials have resisted the idea of reseeding wild rice in the lake, preferring instead to recover the existing Big Rice genotype. True wild rice varies considerably in kernel shape, length, and taste, from lake to lake, and Big Rice was widely known for its highly desirable kernels, a characteristic that would likely be lost if rice from another lake was seeded there.

While one audience member suggested the use of herbicide to control the pickerel weed, DNR officials said they preferred to avoid that solution as well.

In the end, the lake managers said they plan to focus on using more natural water cycles to encourage greater variability of water levels. That may include removing a rock weir that the DNR built in 1995 about a mile and a quarter downstream from the lake’s outlet. It may include less beaver control as well. The DNR began to control beaver around the outlet in the mid-1970s, but officials said ending the practice could help boost water levels. Lake managers will also continue to pursue pickerel weed shearing for now.

The DNR will also be conducting a new fish assessment on the lake in 2017. Despite being very shallow, the lake does support a sizable population of northern pike and other fish.

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snowshoe2

In recent years in much of north central Minnesota pickeral weed has exploded for some reason in many lakes. Also muskrat populations are much lower than the 70's and 80's even with the low trapping harvests in recent years.

Climate has much to do with rice crops statewide with recent years of 6 inch rains in a day being more common is hard on rice and longer and warmer summers.

There is so many variables involved and some of them are new.

Thursday, December 22, 2016