Montana's Mysterious Huckleberry

By Jim Mann
    Sometimes they produce, some years they don't - huckleberry shrubs are like question marks dotting forest landscapes.
    In a partly shaded opening, a cluster of shrubs can be drooping from the weight of berries. But not far away, plants exposed to constant sun and little rain can be berryless. At lower elevations huckleberry production can be sparse, while at higher elevations, it can be bountiful. Huckleberries are finicky and mysterious, responding to a blend of environmental conditions.
    And in northwest Montana, where they are a favorite treat for humans and a necessity for grizzly bears, huckleberries are important.
    That was obvious in the summer of 1998, when there was a widespread huckleberry crop failure. Deprived of one of their primary food sources, grizzly bears and black bears roamed far in search of other edibles.
They ended up on roads, train tracks and in people's back yards. Increased exposure to people often proved fatal. Twenty-five grizzly bears died  a disastrous count for an animal protected by the Endangered Species Act.
    There are some prevailing opinions about the cause of the widespread huckleberry crop failure.
    Rod Hickle, a resource forester on the Forest Service's Hungry Horse Ranger District, attributes last year's busted crop to severe frosts that in May and June.
"It knocked off the flowering buds and that really lowered the ability of the shrubs to produce berries," he said. "The berries were poor at all elevational gradients."
But Hickle said he was perplexed as to why the berries failed at all elevations, since huckleberry shrubs are in different stages of development at different elevations.
Will Smith, a forest technician on the district, spent much of last summer monitoring white bark pine in high elevation areas, and continuously he found dried out berries. Smith says the failure on mountaintops and ridges appeared to be caused by extremely dry conditions.
    The vexing nature of huckleberries can probably best be seen at Glacier National Park's native plant nursery, where there have been attempts to cultivate the shrub for years.
Dale Wick, the nursery manager, says plants have been grown from seed, but the survival rate is dismal compared to roughly 200 other plants that nursery cultivates.
"Of the plants we grow, these are probably the most difficult to grow," he said.
The lack of knowledge about the plant in a controlled environment is magnified in the wild. "If people had been able to cultivate them commercially then we would know a lot more," said Kate Kendall, a grizzly bear ecology researcher who has monitored huckleberry patches in Glacier National Park since 1973.
"There has been a fair amount of research," Kendall said. "But (huckleberry production) is hard to figure out because you need many, many years of data to see a true trend rather than a chance event."
    High up on Kah Mountain, overlooking the South Fork of the Flathead River drainage and Hungry Horse Reservoir, the Forest Service is well into a five-year study aimed at determining how huckleberry shrubs respond to different post-timber harvest treatments.
The area is in the thick of grizzly habitat. There are scores of lodgepole and larch trees that have been girdled by bears looking for candy-like cambium under the bark.
The study involves a series of plots in an area that was cleared of timber in the 1980s. One plot covers ground that was burned after the harvest. At another, the ground was scraped, or scarified, by mechanical equipment, and at another plot, the turf was left alone.
For four summers, every huckleberry stem and leaf has been counted along transect lines to determine which treatment works best.
    "Just from visual observations, it's looking like fire-treated plots are producing the most," said Tim Bumgarner, a forestry technician who has coordinated the study.
    The final results of the study will probably influence decisions on the best ways to mitigate the impacts of timber harvesting on bears. Burning costs more than mechanical scarification, Bumgarner said, but it may be worth it in prime bear habitat.
Bumgarner's research revolves around an ongoing debate regarding logging, huckleberries and bears. It's been argued that logging opens the forest canopy, providing better conditions for huckleberry shrubs to grow.
"The blanket statement that opening the forest canopy is good for huckleberry production, I would say 'yes' to a point," Bumgarner said.
Other factors have to be considered: Harvest activities in themselves may damage plants and hinder production for several years. And generally, the shrubs don't seem to do well if exposed to constant sunlight and little rain.
    In observing Glacier huckleberry plots, where there has been no logging, Kendall believes that plants generally do best in open areas.
    "But they also need adequate moisture," she said. "And open sites tend to be drier sites. It tends to be a balancing act of having enough sunlight and having enough moisture."

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