By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING — After decades of leaving wild rice management to Native American tribes, state officials are gearing up to track how some government agencies handle wild rice issues.
Wild rice, or manoomin, is a seed that is a traditional food for many Native Americans. The plant grows in shallow water, and wild rice stands are peppered in various, often hush-hush, locations throughout the state.
A misconception exists that wild rice was never important in Michigan, said Barb Barton, an endangered species consultant from Lansing who is writing a book about wild rice in Michigan.“There actually was a lot of wild rice here prior to the logging era and European colonization.Tribes have been bringing back wild rice stands, undertaking restoration projects that consist of re-seeding historic wild rice beds over several years.”
Doing so requires the collaboration of several state agencies, said Roger LaBine, a traditional ricer with the Lac Vieux Desert Band in the Upper Peninsula.
Until now, there’s been little oversight or communication among state agencies about wild rice work.
But state officials are launching a wild rice steering committee. Tribal involvement will be critical, according to the man putting together the initiative.
“We fully recognize the tribes as experts and leaders in wild rice restoration and management,” said Patrick Hanchin, the tribal coordination unit manager for the Fisheries Division of the Department of Natural Resources. “We recognize that and want to be at the table with them.”
The initiative is still in the early stages.
Other agencies have noticed wild rice issues crop up repeatedly, Hanchin said. The plant is also affected by work done by the departments of Environmental Quality, Transportation and Agriculture and Rural Development.
Hanchin wants the steering group to track the growth, expansion and decline of wild rice throughout the state. Such issues as locations of existing stands and weed-killers’ effect on stands requires coordination and communication between agencies and tribes, he said.
“There’s so much unknown,” he said. “It needs to be coordinated.”
In Wisconsin, information about wild rice harvesting is easy to find online. And signs posted at lakes tell when rice is ready for harvest. Tribal members carry permits to harvest rice and non-tribal ricers buy licenses.
It’s different in Michigan, where management is done piece by piece, and no regulations restrict who can harvest rice and when, LaBine said.
Precise locations aren’t widely shared, said Daugherty Johnson, the environmental services manager for the Little Traverse Bay Band Odawa Indians. That’s to protect ongoing restoration work.
Dennis Knapp, chief of staff and tribal coordinator at the DNR, said wild rice isn’t a commercial crop in Michigan. And Johnson said there’s no plan to turn wild rice into a commercial crop.
Wild rice has two species. Southern “river” rice or Zizania aquatica, is protected and is considered threatened by the state. Northern “lake” rice, or Zizania palustris, isn’t.
It’s the northern species that grows in the western Upper Peninsula and is harvested by the Lac Vieux Desert Band.
LaBine, a water resource technician for the tribe, has been a traditional ricer for almost 40 years. He remembers when there was no wild rice to speak of in the western U.P., so he traveled to Wisconsin to harvest. Now, following a restoration process begun by his family in the 1980s, he says some rice beds can finally be harvested.
He works with the Ottawa National Forest to identify additional bed locations. And he’s open to working on restoration with others.
“I’m not a traveling salesman. I only go where I’m invited,” he said.
Restoring beds takes several years of site visits, water testing and re-seeding, LaBine said. It begins by determining where rice beds were originally and what caused them to shrink or disappear.
Many beds died when loggers dammed rivers to float logs to mills, LaBine said. Wild rice does best in water between 6 inches and 3 feet deep, and damming for logs killed it.
Understanding why wild rice disappeared is crucial to restoring it, LaBine said, and helps tribes learn which steps, such as adjusting water levels, will restore the beds.
Then, tribes talk to state agencies to develop a memorandum of understanding. That’s necessary, LaBine said, because historic beds are often on federal, state or private land.
“They have to become a partner and have a stake in it,” LaBine said.
Barton said there used to be huge beds along Lake Erie in what is now Monroe County. But those massive beds won’t return because of heavy browsing by carp and waterfowl, boat traffic and waterfront homeowners’ dislike of aquatic plants. Smaller beds on tribal, state and federal lands are more likely to be restored.
Hanchin hasn’t reached out to the tribes yet, but rice advocates predict his overtures will be successful.“It will be well-received,” Johnson said, adding that there’s already coordination “on the environmental side.”
Erik Rodriguez, the interim public relations director at the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, agreed, saying, “It’ll be a welcome reception, as long as they stay open to the cultural significance of wild rice.”
His tribe holds “rice camps” to teach people, including non-tribal people, how to harvest and finish wild rice.
Karen Hopper Usher writes for Great Lakes Echo.