Field Notes
Field Notes

Tribal partners help study changes in northern Minnesota lakes

Monday, October 14, 2019

The impact of the research conducted at the Science Museum's St. Croix Watershed Research Station reaches farther because of our partnerships with the Red Lake Nation. Collaborating on multiple projects has allowed our scientists to learn from these partners, study unique bodies of water, and help tribal resource managers make informed decisions.

The Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota is home to about 7,500 members of the Red Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Many residents depend on the reservation’s rich natural resources through hunting, fishing, and subsistence harvesting, as well as employment in commercial fishing and logging. 

“The Red Lakes are consistently named as the most important natural component of the Reservation by tribal members,” says Shane Bowe, water resources director of the Red Lake Department of Natural Resources. “The lake is of great spiritual importance as well an important source of sustenance and income. Our program is charged with protecting the water quality in and around the lake and we take that role seriously.”

Three partnerships between Research Station scientists and the Red Lake DNR are addressing water quality while inspiring learning and informing policy on tribal lands and water, state waters, and international waters:

Paleolimnology of Red Lake

Working with the Red Lake DNR, our scientists have extracted sediment cores from the bottoms of Upper and Lower Red Lakes, at six locations. The cores were analyzed to determine the history of the Red lakes and their watershed over the last 150 years. 

Our results indicate that the Red lakes have not been as heavily impacted by land use or nutrient loading as many Minnesota lakes. The important finding of the project is that the lakes, and their world class walleye fishery, are unique, but have oddly exceeded nutrient standards for northern Minnesota for a long time—the lakes are not impaired, but naturally productive. 

“Partnering with the St. Croix Watershed Research Station has allowed us to show evidence of what we have long suspected based on our own 20+ years of data,” Bowe says. “Upper and Lower Red Lake have been highly productive nutrient rich lakes for hundreds of years. Rather than an impairment, we think this actually contributes to the lakes' highly successful walleye fishery.”

The Red Lake Nation, working with the Science Museum and the State of Minnesota, will move to develop "site-specific" nutrient standards for the Red lakes. Brenna P., a tribal member and Bemidji State student, also interned at the Research Station to learn algae identification as part of the project.

Dust deposition in Minnesota

Wilderness lakes across northern Minnesota are changing in unprecedented ways that result in noxious algae blooms. The cause of the problem is likely two-fold – our changing climate and atmospheric deposition. 

On Red Lake tribal lands, we sampled two remote peatland lakes, where any mineral input to the lakes should only come from atmospheric sources, to see if dust deposition has changed over time and is threatening tribal and northern Minnesota lakes.

Soil and nutrients can be carried long distances by the wind, and large agricultural areas upwind from Red Lake may be increasing nutrients in these isolated waterbodies. This project has the potential to show another way in which our world and its waters are all connected.

Water quality of Lake of the Woods

Lake of the Woods is a multi-jurisdictional water body (USA, Canada, Tribal, First Nation) and was recently declared impaired for nutrients and algae by the State of Minnesota. A state plan was put in place to fix this impairment.

The Red Lake Tribal DNR is partnering with the Science Museum to monitor water quality and algal toxins in Lake of the Woods to measure the effectiveness of Minnesota's plan to bring better water quality to this important resource. 

Even though the giant border lake isn’t part of the Red Lake Reservation, it is part of the band’s territory in treaties and has been used over the years by band members. The Red Lake DNR also believes it will receive more use from band members in the future.

Check out this recent article in the fall issue of the Red Lake DNR’s Dagwaagiin (p 8-9) for more information.

Thank you to our tribal partners for strengthening our science!

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