Climate Change Threatens Midwest's Wild Rice, A Staple For Native Americans

Aug 7, 2018
Originally published on August 7, 2018 8:12 am

Each year, Dylan Jennings harvests wild rice from the lakes and rivers near his home in northern Wisconsin. He and a partner use a canoe, nosing carefully through rice beds and knocking rice kernels into the boat's hull using special sticks.

"It's a really long process," he says. "It starts with identifying the area where you are going to go ricing and knowing those areas in a very intimate way."

Northern wild rice, also known as manoomin, is a staple food in Ojibwe communities across the Upper Midwest, where it's also used in traditional ceremonies. And, like any wild crop, some years yield more than others, depending on the weather.

"When wild rice is bad, that means ... families go without wild rice that year, which can be really tough," explains Jennings, a spokesperson for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, or GLIFWC.

There have been a lot of bad years recently, as invasive species and a series of catastrophic floods have damaged rice beds. And the trend may continue, as climate change brings more frequent and severe rainstorms and warmer temperatures to the region.

"A warmer climate is making more favorable conditions for heavy rainfalls," explains Steve Vavrus, senior scientist at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research at the University of Wisconsin. Warmer air can hold more moisture, and climate models also predict storms will move more slowly, dumping rain for longer and resulting in more floods.

"Over the last 60 years or so, the upper Midwest and the Northeast have been the two regions experiencing the biggest increase in heavy rainfall," explains Vavrus.

Warmer air temperatures may also be a problem for wild rice plants. As average temperatures rise, the growing season is extending. That may sound like good news — more time to flourish and produce rice kernels — but wild rice is adapted to a relatively short growing season. A 2014 paper warned that rising temperatures could threaten wild rice harvests in tribal communities around the Great Lakes.

Ecologists say more warm months may favor other plants, creating new competition for wild rice. Preliminary data gathered in northern Wisconsin suggests the cumulative effects of climate change may already be hurting wild rice harvests on some lakes.

A 2008 report by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources delivered a similar warning, noting that climate change presents the most serious long-term threat to wild rice in the state.

For people who grew up harvesting wild rice, it's clear things are already changing. "Personally I've noticed on a lot of inland lakes over last few years, things that I don't remember seeing," says Jennings. Rice beds are thinner than they were a generation ago and there are more rice worms living on plants and more silt deposited by floods.

So far there are limited strategies for protecting wild rice harvests. Diverting runoff or slowing down floodwater so it doesn't destroy plants could help, but rising temperatures may ultimately lead the plant's range to shrink northward into Canada.

That would be bad news for people who currently harvest wild rice on reservations. "Migration as an adaptation strategy for tribes is not really an option," says Melonee Montano, who works on traditional ecological knowledge outreach at GLIFWC. "Our land is fixed. All we can do is to work together to improve awareness and look for solutions."

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Climate change is causing more rain in many parts of the U.S., and more rain means more flooding. And that is bad news for one Great Lakes region crop - wild rice.

NPR's Rebecca Hersher has the story.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Northern wild rice - real wild rice - grows naturally in rivers and lakes all over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and into Canada. And harvesting it is a group activity, especially in native communities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is a family homestead.

HERSHER: The Couture family is part of the Ojibwe tribe. They live on the Bad River near Lake Superior. And Chris Couture remembers when he was a kid, lots of people would come harvest near their house.

CHRIS COUTURE: You know, back in the day, you'd come out here during ricing time, and everyone came here. Everyone brought their boats. I mean, every canoe was lined up the whole way.

HERSHER: But the climate is changing, and some people here say it seems to be hurting the wild rice plants.

DYLAN JENNINGS: That used to just be filled with rice, and now there's not rice there anymore.

HERSHER: Dylan Jennings works for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. He personally harvests wild rice every year.

JENNINGS: But our elders always talk about how lush and how just pristine all the wild rice used to be in our area here and how - just how thick it was. And - but nowadays, where I'm coming from as a young person, over the last few years, we've seen major flooding in the area. We've seen other environmental things that have come into play.

HERSHER: Things like a longer growing season as climate change causes average temperatures to rise. Ecologists warn that a longer growing season may sound like good news, but wild rice has adapted to a shorter growing season. Longer summers actually favor other plants and let them crowd out wild rice. And then there's the flooding. There are more frequent and severe rainstorms in the Upper Midwest. Floodwater carries sediment and pollution into the rice beds. Preliminary studies suggest that the cumulative effects of climate change are leading to more bad years for local rice harvests. Dylan Jennings says that's particularly hard on Ojibwe people in the region.

JENNINGS: Wild rice is always used in all of our ceremonies and all of our gatherings, and so, you know, we're dependent upon that. It can be really tough.

HERSHER: As climate change continues, good growing areas for the wild rice plants will be farther north. But the people who rely on it won't be able to follow.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIMITRI STOCKL'S "AS SHE RISES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.