Wild for waterfowl
There has been a concerted effort by organizations big and small to try and bring ducks back to Minnesota in recent years that centers around a common element – food.
That’s what attracts and keeps waterfowl in an area. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Ducks Unlimited has teamed up in the past to lower the water levels of popular waters in the area like Lake Christina to bring back the aquatic plants that ducks feast on in the fall.
Now local conservation groups are jumping on board in an effort to establish a healthy wild rice crop on public waters across Douglas, Pope and Grant counties. The Pioneer Heritage Conservation Trust (PHCT), a group of about 240 members out of Evansville, led and helped fund the project. They saw a need and pursued it with the help of money from the Conservation Partners Legacy (CPL) Grant Program and matching funds from area businesses and outdoor groups.
“I know this is going to be watched carefully,” former PHCT president and project leader Craig DeJong said. “Everybody is pretty excited about wild rice. It seems like a popular topic. We’re using legacy money and then 10 percent private match money and sportsmen are excited to provide. We went around to six or seven different sportsmen’s clubs asking for 10 percent matching monies for it and every one of them said yes.”
A total of 23 volunteers gathered their canoes, trucks and trailers last fall to plant the 8,890 pounds of Minnesota-grown wild rice. The seed was harvested from lakes, rivers and ponds in the Brainerd-Mille Lacs-Aitken area last August. It was placed in wet storage until the planting process, which happened between September 20 and October 16.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of Morris and the Minnesota DNR in Glenwood carefully chose the planting locations where the rice should flourish. In the end, wild rice was planted in 20 ponds across six Waterfowl Production Areas and nine Wildlife Management Areas.
“There’s no reason it shouldn’t succeed,” current PHCT president John Seim said. “For us, the project was planting it. We did everything that was supposedly right as far as planting it and taking care of it. It’s kind of up to nature now.”
The wild rice project cost a little more than $40,000. The DNR Conservation Partners Legacy Grant funded $36,000 of that, while local conservation partners provided $4,600.
Any project that uses money from the CPL grant program requires that it is used on public lands. The goal of the contributing groups is that all hunters and bird lovers alike can benefit from this if it helps keep waterfowl around for longer stretches.
“We aren’t inventing the wheel here,” DeJong said. “There’s been quite a bit of wild rice grown in the area, but there hasn’t been a large project done on public waters, in this part of the state anyway.”
The ponds that they planted in stretch from as far north as Wendell, just south of Fergus Falls, all the way down to Brooten.
“That’s a big tract of land,” DeJong said. “There’s not going to be any significant attraction for northern ducks as far as in mass, but I know that it will certainly hold some of those birds that will be stopping over. We didn’t do a big enough project that will attract great numbers of ducks yet.”
DeJong said it’s a project that he knows many waterfowl enthusiasts will be watching to see how well it succeeds. If it goes well, the potential is there to keep adding more. The PHCT is already planning to plant in five more ponds this coming fall.
Wild rice grows above the surface and is rooted in soft, mucky sediment in depths of water ranging from six inches to three feet. The rice has a higher protein content than most cereal grains, which makes it an ideal food source for waterfowl. The plant also provides quality cover with stocks that can grow as tall as 10 feet in the summer.
That combination made the seeding of wild rice the kind of project the PHCT wanted to pursue when they were brainstorming ideas last spring.
“A lot of the talk is that water is not enough,” Seim said. “You have to have food and shelter too. Minnesota is not exactly in the hay day for waterfowl, so we met with a bunch of different people who are promoting planting food sources, and that’s kind of how we got going. Talking with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the DNR, they suggested planting wild rice.”
Those involved with the project are now eagerly awaiting the growing season. Seim said they were told that the seed they planted should have 90 percent germination in the first year with some possibly needing until year two or three.
There should be noticeable wild rice on the edge of shorelines of public waters by early this summer. From there, the ducks should follow in the fall.
“It’s not going to be a flyway shifting project,” DeJong said. “But I still think those who live close to a pond that has wild rice, you’re going to see a lot of birds found there.”