Reserves protect special places. But the wild rice beds, known as manoomin in the Ojibwe language, at the Lake Superior Reserve are exceptional. At least they were.
Manoomin once thrived in the clean waters of the Lake Superior Basin, where they were central to life for thousands of years. Since the 1960s, however, the abundance of wild rice has steadily declined. The threats are multiple, and include over predation by birds like geese and swans, hydrologic changes, pollution, land use impacts, and climate change.
The Reserve has joined with First Nation and other partners in the Lake Superior Manoomin Workgroup to explore how to bring the manoomin back. The group has been working to understand the value of these beds and what can be gained by restoring and protecting them for future generations.
“We’re well-situated to be in the group,” says Deanna Erickson, manager at the Reserve. “The St. Louis River Estuary had some of the largest rice beds in the basin. Those were largely lost, and the community is in the process of restoring them now. We’ve provided ecological monitoring that is critical to these efforts.”
The group completed the Lake Superior Manoomin Cultural and Ecosystem Characterization Study last May. This report provides a baseline understanding of the current status of many historical manoomin beds, describes what it would take to restore their ecological and social functions, and makes recommendations for moving forward.
Manoomin is integral to the culture, livelihood, and identity of the Anishinaabe, a group of Indigenous peoples within Canada and the United States. In their culture, manoomin is considered a sacred, animate, “more-than-human” being. It is present at ceremonies, celebrations, feasts, funerals, and initiations as a food source and spiritual presence.
Manoomin is also ecologically important. Migrating and resident wildlife feed in wild rice beds, which provide a nursery for fish and nesting and breeding habitats for waterfowl and muskrat. Wild rice also helps stabilize shorelines, and by binding loose soils, it lowers nutrient loading, improving water clarity and reducing algal blooms.
“The potential for restoration is enormous,” says Erickson. “Even in places where restoration has been successful, more is needed. At one Minnesota site, Twin Lakes, it was found that if planned restoration improved habitat functionality by 2.5%, more than 100,000 additional acres of restored habitat—the area of 550 Twin Lakes—would be needed to recover the loss in functionality that occurred between 1966 and 2019.”