DULUTH-In theory, the wild rice growing along the lower St. Louis River is there for geese to enjoy - that's why natural resource agencies are working so hard to bring it back.
But when the expanding resident population of giant Canada geese start munching on manoomin well before it's even ripe, destroying the entire stalk, they can cause a lot of damage.
Enter Sam Hansen, a biology student at the University of Wisconsin Superior, who was tasked with checking out an idea. Why not draft volunteer kayakers, canoeists and paddle boarders to scare the geese away?
Sure, personal watercraft and motorboats would work, but the wakes the big craft leave behind can damage the rice, as high water from flooding and waves can rip the stalks right out of the riverbottom. Bigger boats can't get back into the shallows to where the rice grows most.
"It seemed like an interesting thing to look at. And a good way to spend the summer," Hansen said as he paddled his kayak along Pokegama Bay on the Superior side of the estuary.
Hansen received a $3,500 UWS research grant for the project. He purchased and deployed eight trail cameras on different wild rice beds along the lower river, four areas regularly visited by volunteer kayakers in June and July and four that were intentionally left alone. The trail cameras snapped photos once every 10 minutes during daylight hours, or whenever motion set them off.
Hansen, a Lakeville, Minn. native, is still combing through thousands of images, comparing the photos to when paddlers were logged as being on site. Geese were in a lot of the photos, he noted, and it became obvious fairly quickly he had basic answers to both his basic questions:
Yes, geese are targeting and feeding on wild rice during summer months and causing noticeable damage; Hansen calls it grubbing the rice out. And yes, people at the wild rice beds at the right time can scare the geese away.
"But it usually took more than just being there," Hansen noted. "You usually had to be very obviously trying to scare them away. They didn't scare very easily."
Hansen said it would take a sustained, coordinated effort by a large group of volunteers over several weeks of summer to keep the geese away enough to save many rice plants.
"You could do it, but it would be a pretty big project," he said.
Hansen - who hopes to go into limnology, biology or maybe forestry after graduation - also is surveying each of the eight locations to see how much rice survived the goose onslaught and if the paddlers indeed protected any rice.
"They grubbed it out pretty good all over," he said of the geese's impact on the rice.
The Wisconsin and Minnesota Departments of Natural Resources, Fond du Lac Band, 1854 Authority, Great lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission and others have been trying for years to restore wild rice beds once common along the St. Louis River estuary in Duluth and Superior - part of the larger Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Wild rice is not only an important food for migrating waterfowl, it's also a sacred food for Ojibwe people who settled in the region centuries ago specifically because of the abundance of manoomin. It's estimated as many as 3,000 acres of the 12,000-acre estuary were covered by wild rice at one point. But over the last 150 years the rice beds have given way to port development, channeling an influx of weeds, sawmill debris and pollution. Only a few acres of the original rice beds remained, including upper Pokegama Bay, where we paddled on a warm afternoon last week.
In other areas where rice once grew but hasn't lately - Radio Tower Bay, near Clough Island, Duck Hunt Bay and Walleye Alley Bay - weeds were removed mechanically, debris hauled away and efforts made to re-seed wild rice along shallow stretches of the river's backwaters.
The newly seeded rice has grown well, depending on water levels. But the geese are eating more than their share before it's ready.
Having geese police on site was thought to be potentially more effective than sound or motion deterrents, like sound cannons, which geese become accustomed to. It was also considered more politically correct than instituting a goose removal effort where the geese are collected, often when they molt and can't fly, and then killed.
Early fall hunting season helps trim local goose numbers some. But with the entire Duluth side of the estuary off-limits to all firearms hunting, the geese learn quickly to avoid the Wisconsin side of the river once the shooting starts.
Short of killing more geese, which may or may not be a viable option, having volunteers waving paddles at the big birds may be the best option to allow some wild rice to grow.
"They seem to be able to find the wild rice really well," Hansen said of the geese honing in on rice bays. "And I've seen them out here at all hours; 6 a.m., 9 p.m. It's mostly early and late. But they've been out here grubbing away at noon and 4:30 in the afternoon, too. They love the stuff."