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WDAY: The News Leader

Published October 19, 2013, 10:04 AM

Humans lend a hand to help wild rice spread

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Nick Palaia reached a plastic-gloved hand into a 50-pound sack of wild rice resting atop the Marsh Master navigating the waters of a shallow lake.

By: ANN WESSEL, St. Cloud Times, WDAY

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — Nick Palaia reached a plastic-gloved hand into a 50-pound sack of wild rice resting atop the Marsh Master navigating the waters of a shallow lake. He grabbed a softball-sized clump and sent a spray of the damp, greenish seed toward shore. The grains landed in an arc, sending concentric circles across the surface of the water.

Like those circles, the effect wild rice has on wildlife can be far-reaching, the St. Cloud Times reported.

It feeds dabbling ducks and other migratory waterfowl. Muskrats eat it. Beavers eat it. Deer eat it. Wild rice provides cover in the fall. The invertebrates that feed off the plant provide more fodder for waterfowl.

"It's one of those rare plants that benefits many (species)," said Palaia, a Litchfield-based wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. "It's one of those things where every time I throw a handful of rice out there, I feel like I'm making a difference. It's going to benefit all kinds of wildlife."

Sometimes the benefits are immediate. About 70 percent of the seed will be consumed before it reaches the bottom. New plants may emerge the following spring.

Palaia notified the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources of this mid-September project on a small lake within Collegeville Waterfowl Production Area lest conservation officers think hunters were baiting ducks.

Sometimes benefits take years to emerge. Wild rice may rest dormant on a lake's bottom for decades until conditions are right. Sometimes it doesn't take hold at all.

When it flourishes, it brings in droves of ducks.

"It's a transformational plant. The difference between having wild rice there and not having it is so dramatic you can't help but have a sense of wonderment seeing it in action," said Rod Ustipak of Brainerd, who for the past 12 years has coordinated a DNR-Ducks Unlimited partnership that aims to manage wild rice lakes.

Seeing flock after flock rising from the waters is often what hooks wildlife managers such as Palaia and Fred Bengtson of the Sauk Rapids DNR. Both carve time and money out of their budgets to seed wild rice in Central Minnesota.

Since 2007, Palaia has thrown about 6,900 pounds of wild rice into 105 basins within 35 Waterfowl Production Areas at a cost approaching $15,000. This year, he planned to throw 450 pounds.

Palaia learned about wild rice from Bengtson, who seeds about 30 acres a year with 2,000 pounds of wild rice. Since 2001, Bengtson has seeded about 300 acres in Stearns, Wright and Sherburne counties. The self-seeding that ensued expanded wild rice to about 1,500 acres. This year, Bengtson planned to seed about 4,000 pounds. Part of the $8,000 cost will be covered by a Legacy Amendment grant.

In the Sauk Rapids DNR's earliest success with wild rice, Bengtson returned the spring after seeding 50 pounds from a canoe within the Sand Prairie WMA near the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud. A stand of wild rice marked the canoe's path.

While Palaia and Bengtson tend to work on smaller projects within the transitional hardwood forest, the zone that separates prairie from pines, Ustipak tackles larger projects — most of them in the northern part of the state where wild rice was more abundant and less affected by other factors.

Ustipak has spent a career working with wild rice. Thirty years ago, he was a DNR employee restoring natural rice beds whenever funding allowed. Today, he's also an independent consultant with a crew of harvesters who supply others, including Palaia and Bengtson, with wild rice seed.

Between his work with the DNR and Ducks Unlimited, Ustipak has worked on about 200 lakes — actively managing about 150 and surveying another 50. His interest germinated years earlier during hunting trips with his father.

"I saw marvelous sights as a youngster, of waterfowl coming from every point of the compass to all these wild-rice lakes, to the point where you could hardly hear yourself talk. The rushing of the wings, it was a spectacular occurrence to see these ducks fly in, 10, 20, 30, 40 — as many as 50,000 ducks, back in the early '60s," Ustipak said.

Later on, he harvested wild rice to make money. Many families used that extra income to buy school clothes or pay for hunting trips.

Harvest permits issued by the DNR help fund restoration efforts. The number of license-holders fluctuates greatly from year to year. During the past 50 years, it peaked at 16,498 in 1968, according to DNR records. In 2012, 1,171 people obtained permits.

Biologists can't predict where a wild rice seeding will take. Sometimes it thrives in marginal conditions. Sometimes it doesn't emerge at all, even in ideal conditions — shallow water (3 feet or less) with a fresh and consistent water supply.

"There used to be a lot more wild rice in Minnesota, and that was the key to waterfowl before cereal grains," Ustipak said.

More rice not only attracts more migrating ducks in spring and fall but also holds them longer. That's important from a nutritional standpoint; the ducks will be healthier heading south.

Reservoirs, agriculture and drainage added to wild rice habitat loss in Minnesota.

In northern Minnesota, Ustipak said water bodies such as Big Sandy Flowage, Leech Lake and Whitefish Lake were dammed for logging. Recreational users liked the higher water levels.

In Central Minnesota, nutrients from agriculture-related runoff have contributed to murkier waters. Wild rice grows best in clear conditions.

In southern Minnesota, wetlands were drained. Those that remained were deeper and therefore less suited to wild rice.

"The blueprint is a little different with every restoration," Ustipak said.

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