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Wild rice making comeback on St. Louis River

Terry Perrault, a natural resources technician with the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, operates a weed harvesting machine on the St. Louis River recently. The weeds are being removed so wild rice can be restored. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)1 / 4
Perennial aquatic weeds such as sedges, coontail, lily pads and milfoil are cut and collected in a weed harvesting machine operated by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa on Duck Hunter Bay in the St. Louis River. The weeds need to go before wild rice can be seeded in the area as part of a broad effort to restore wild rice to the St. Louis River estuary. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)2 / 4
Thomas Howes, natural resources program manager for the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, pilots an airboat to a site where the band is removing weeds from a bay in the St. Louis River as part of a wild rice restoration project. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 4
Terry Perrault, a natural resources technician with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, explains how perennial weeds are removed from a shallow bay along the St. Louis River so wild rice can be re-seeded this autumn. (John Myers / jmyers@duluthnews.com)4 / 4

Tom Howes explained in Anishinaabe, then in English, why restoring wild rice to the St. Louis River is so important to the Fond du Lac people.

It’s here, along the 26-mile estuary upstream of Lake Superior, that his ancestors settled after a long journey from the east. They chose the river because of the plentiful food — especially manoomin, wild rice, which they believe is a gift from the creator who led them here.

“We’re taking care of the gifts that were given to us,” Howes said on a sunny afternoon at Boy Scout Landing in western Duluth.

Fond du Lac, he noted, is the French phrase for his people’s location at the end of waters, or end of Lake Superior.

“This is a very important place to us as Fond du Lac people. And this rice is a very important resource,” said Howes, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s natural resources program manager. “That’s why we’re doing this.”

The band is playing a key role in the first major wild rice restoration project now underway on the St. Louis River estuary.

For the past 125 years, the river’s rice wasn’t well taken care of. In the late 1800s the St. Louis was used as a log flume, with floating trees that trashed many wild rice beds. Then harborside industry — sawmills, steel mills and factories — did their part to destroy habitat, as did docks and dredged slips for grain elevators and iron ore loading facilities. Upstream paper mills fouled the water to the point rice couldn’t thrive.

Now, only a few pockets of wild rice are found in the 12,000-acre estuary.

“This was at one time the single largest wild rice area in the region,” said Daryl Peterson of the Minnesota Land Trust, which is coordinating a wild rice restoration project on the river. “Nobody really knows, but we think there were probably about 3,000 acres of wild rice in the estuary before it was degraded. … We think we can bring back maybe a third of that. Maybe 1,000 acres is realistic.”

Howes and Peterson are helping oversee the $200,000 effort. Work began in recent weeks to clear the way for wild rice to make a comeback on the estuary, with a giant weed-harvesting machine chewing away at lily pads, coontail, reeds, sedges and other plants that have filled in where rice once thrived.

“We do it twice. We’ll come back at it after they (weeds) try to come up again,” said Terry Perrault, a Fond du Lac Natural Resources Program technician.

Perrault was driving the clumsy-looking weed harvester that was cutting and gobbling up the weeds where the band will sow wild rice seeds this fall.

The band will try to use rice harvested in September from nearby beds or “definitely rice from within the watershed,” Perrault said as he piloted the harvester in Duck Hunter Bay, a 40-acre shallow backwater on the Wisconsin side of the river.

“It’s a lot of work. It might take three or four seedings to get it going,” Perrault added, noting the tribe has done similar rice restoration efforts on several lakes within the Fond du Lac Reservation.

A bald eagle soared overhead as Perrault guided the harvester. A great blue heron fished near shore. Now and then a fish would scurry to get away from the commotion.

“This is perfect habitat. It’s the right depth … two to three feet, maybe four. This is a place there was probably rice before,” Perrault said.

If he finds any stands of wild rice he avoids cutting that area.

“There’s still some around, here and there,” Perrault said.

In addition to the nonprofit Land Trust and the Fond du Lac band, the rice effort is joined by the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources, the 1854 Treaty Authority and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. Funding comes from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Sustain Our Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Both for its cultural importance and its value as a food for humans and wildlife, restoring rice beds is a key element of the larger St. Louis River estuary restoration effort.

The lower St. Louis River is one of 43 so-called Areas of Concern along the Great Lakes, places severely degraded by development and pollution. It’s hoped that expensive efforts to remove that pollution, restore habitat and rehabilitate the river estuary could eventually get the St. Louis delisted as an Area of Concern, Peterson said.

The rice effort is just one of 60 restoration projects either underway or planned for the estuary.

“We can’t recover all of what the estuary was (before development). The lower estuary is always going to be a working harbor, and that’s good,” Peterson said at the boat landing. “But, up here, we can make a difference.”

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