Return of rice on the St. Louis River

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 Indian people.
It’s here, along the 26-mile estuary just upstream of Lake Superior that his ancestors settled after a long journey from the east. There was plentiful food — especially manoomin, wild rice, which they believe is a sacred gift from the creator who led them here.
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. The project is one of many aimed at cleaning up the St. Louis River, one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “areas of concern,” degraded by development and pollution along the Great Lakes. Because of rice’s 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.
For the past 125 years, the river’s rice was neglected. Minnesota’s great north woods loggers used the St. Louis as a log flume in the late 1800s, floating trees in the water that thrashed wild rice beds.
Then in the early 1900s, harborside industry — sawmills, steel mills and factories, along with docks and dredged slips for grain elevators and iron ore loading facilities — destroyed habitat Meanwhile, upstream paper mills fouled the water to the point rice (and many fish) couldn’t thrive.
By the end of the 20th century only a few pockets of wild rice remained in the 12,000-acre estuary that spills into Lake Superior at Duluth-Superior.
“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 2015 with a giant weed-harvesting machine chewing away at lily pads, reeds, sedges and other plants that have filled in where rice once thrived.
Wild rice planting occurred last year and earlier this year. The band will try to use rice harvested from nearby areas, said Terry Perrault, a Fond du Lac Natural Resources Program technician.
“It’s a lot of work. It might take three or four seedings to get it going,” Perrault said, noting the tribe has done similar rice restoration efforts on several lakes within the Fond du Lac Reservation.
In addition to the nonprofit land trust and the Fond du Lac band, the Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources, the 1854 Treaty Authority and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission are helping the effort to bring back the rice. Funding comes from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Sustain Our Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Congress has been appropriating hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years to pay for the cleanups, under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Progress has already been made. Giant, prehistoric sturgeon have returned to spawn for the first time in decades. Walleyes, musky, pike, smallmouth bass and crappies continue to thrive in the river estuary, offering excellent angling for local residents and tourists alike.
Canoe and kayak landings are being developed for better access.
The wild rice effort is just one of 60 specific projects either completed, underway or planned for the St. Louis River estuary-Duluth harbor area with the goal of getting the estuary off the areas of concern list by 2020. ♦
— John Myers reports on the environment, natural resources, mining and other outdoor news for the Duluth News Tribune newspaper ( He’s been an OWAA member since 1985. He can be reached at

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