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August 30, 2011

MADISON - People looking to participate in wild rice gathering, a seasonal ritual that typically runs from late August through the first three weeks of September, will likely encounter only fair rice beds this year based on aerial surveys conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

"Wild rice production is influenced by a number of factors. The combination of a cool, late spring and high water in many of our lakes and flowages. Unfortunately, the early July severe weather has definitely had an impact," says Peter David, wildlife biologist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in Odanah. "Rice beds looked poor in the surveyed area of northwest Wisconsin, but were slightly better in the north-central part of the state."

Wild rice harvests can vary widely from year to year and from site to site. People are encouraged to scout the locations they're interested in.

"Much like hunting, success is increased by doing some preseason work," said Ricky Lien, Wisconsin Wetland Habitat Specialist. Even with the outlook for this season's harvest being less than ideal, Lien noted that there are some rice waters with good stands of rice. "And even if you don't find rice like you might have seen in some of our really good years, you can still have a great time being out there," he said.

Lien hopes that people take time this season to introduce others to wild rice. "Gathering wild rice is interesting from a historical and cultural aspect, the biology and management is unique, and its value as habitat is unmatched. I hope people who are experienced at gathering wild rice will take the time share their knowledge and get other people into this great activity."

Wild rice is the seed of a family of aquatic grasses (including Zizania aquatica and Z. palustris). The rice kernels are nutritious, delicious foodstuff for wildlife and people. The grain grows on tall stalks in shallow lakes, streams and riverbeds throughout the upper Midwest and Canada. Seed imbedded in lake bottoms for a year or more start to germinate in early spring and send a stem up to the surface of the water. Given stable water conditions, the rice plants grow into thick beds from June through September. The seed heads start to fill out in late August and mature over a 10 to 14 day period.

Wild rice harvest regulated in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, most of the harvest comes from the northwestern part of the state in Burnett, Washburn and Polk counties and in Vilas and Oneida counties in north central Wisconsin. Additional beds are managed on waters on tribal lands.

On rivers, flowages and some lakes, no formal seasons are established, and these can be harvested whenever ricers determine the rice is ripe, provided they find ripe rice before the ducks, songbirds and mammals that also crave the calorie-rich grains.

On some lakes, however, the season is date-regulated, and wild rice may only be harvested during the open season set cooperatively by Department of Natural Resources staff and tribal rice chiefs. Notice of season openings and closings are posted at lake landings and at common lake access points at least 24 hours in advance of season openings.

Authorities inspect the rice beds every two to three days on larger waters that typically have larger rice beds and are frequented by more harvesters. Smaller beds are inspected less frequently. Wild rice harvesters can find out when prime waters are open for ricing in northwestern Wisconsin by telephoning the DNR's Spooner Service Center at (715) 635-2101 and in north central Wisconsin waters by phoning the DNR's Woodruff Service Center at (715) 356-5211.

Lists of open ricing waters are also posted and updated regularly during the harvest season on the wild rice page of the DNR Web site and on the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission website [exit DNR].

Due to the poor rice conditions on some lakes, officials have determined that some regulated lakes will not be open to ricing this year. The list below indicates some closed lakes, but ricers should check the wild rice page of the DNR website for updates.

Only Wisconsin residents may harvest wild rice in the state. Harvesters age 16 to 65 must purchase and possess a wild rice harvesting license for $8.25 annually. Immediate family members (spouse and minor-age children residing in the same household as the license holder) may harvest rice under the same permit as long as the other family members have received special wild ricing identification. Those buying quantities of wild rice for resale or importation as well as those processing wild rice for others or processing wild rice for sale to others must annually purchase a wild rice buyers license.

Harvesters are limited to gathering wild rice in boats no longer than 17 feet and no wider than 38 inches that must be propelled by muscle power using paddles or push poles. The grain is still harvested by hand using wooden sticks (flails) that bend the tall stalks over the canoe. As the seed heads are tapped, some rice falls in the canoe and some in the water to seed the bed for future years. The flails must be rounded wooden rods or sticks no more than 38 inches long and hand-operated. Harvesting should be done gently, so that the stalks and beds can be harvested again as more rice matures, and using a good ricing technique ensures the wild rice stands aren't damaged.

Cottage industries have developed over the years in communities adjoining the traditionally productive wild rice waters to thresh or "process" the green wild rice which must be gently dried, parched and threshed to separate usable grain from chaff. Moisture, seed coats and chaff often compose more than 60 percent of the green weight harvest, leaving about four pounds of edible rice for every 10 pounds harvested.

The wild rice season typically runs from late August through mid-September. Wild rice ripens at a gradual rate as the milky starch fills the rice heads and hardens during maturation. At any given location, rice is harvested over a two- to three-week period.

To further protect the fragile rice beds and to allow waterfowl an undisturbed period to feed, ricers can only collect wild rice during the day from 10 a.m. until sunset.

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Ricky Lien, DNR Wetland Habitat Specialist, Plymouth, 920-892-8756 ext. 3045

Last Revised: Tuesday, August 30, 2011

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