Where Food Grows On Water: Environmental and Human Threats to Wisconsin’s Wild Rice

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Photo © Codi Kozacek / Circle of Blue

SANBORN, Wis. — In early June, green tendrils of wild rice rise from the Bad River’s soft bottom to take their first breaths of cool Wisconsin air. It is morning, just hours after a storm bent the big pines off the Lake Superior coast and beat the extensive beds of infant wild rice that grow here.

Lisa and Peter David, plant biologists who have dedicated a significant portion of their careers to understanding and protecting wild rice, stand in the wind with arms crossed, surveying this year’s new plants.

The Bad River’s rice beds, which later this summer will look like green prairies, perform much as they have for centuries. They provide a stable, supplemental food source for the Anishinaabe people, who hold wild rice as sacred. The rice is also a source of food for wildlife, as well as a habitat for many fish, making it a keystone species for this region’s water-rich landscape.

How much longer that will be the case is not clear, say the Davids. In recent years, climate change has produced stronger storms and more erratic weather. For a plant that grows best in water that is 30 to 90 centimeters (one to three feet) deep, the big changes in water depth caused by heavy rains and floods can drown young rice plants, or pull them out by their roots.

“If lake levels change — getting either higher or lower from where they are — we will probably see some rice beds that will cease to exist,” Peter David says.

This story originally appeared on Circle of Blue. Read the full article here.