Huckleberry enthusiasm has been elevated to obsession in Northwest Montana, where purveyors of the seasonal fruit advertise products ranging from jams, pies, salads and milkshakes to candles, coffee, wine and beer — even huckleberry-flavored cartridges for electronic cigarettes.
Yet for the scientists who know that the berries play a key role in the ecosystems of Northern Rockies, a full understanding of the huckleberry plant remains elusive.
“That’s one of the allures of the huckleberry, you know — you can’t grow them in your backyard,” said Tabitha Graves, a U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist based in Glacier National Park. “I think up until this point, they haven’t really had a level of research that would be appropriate for their role in the ecosystem.”
Graves is conducting a multiyear monitoring project in the park, hoping to gain an understanding of where the most productive berry plants grow and what conditions drive the timing of the crop and allow the plants to thrive.
“I think it’s important that we understand this amazing resource that’s an important food resource for many different species of wildlife and an important food resource for humans,” she said.
Graves’ research project grew from a 2010 workshop that brought scientists together to examine how the region’s grizzly bears would respond to climate change’s impact on the landscape.
Both grizzlies and black bears have an especially close relationship with the plants, and in Glacier and the surrounding forests, huckleberries can make up more than half of their diet while the fruit are in season.
“The amount of fat they get determines whether they successfully have cubs,” Graves explained, noting that bears reproduce through delayed implantation.
After a female bear successfully mates, the fertilized egg doesn’t attach to the womb and begins developing only once the bear reaches a necessary threshold of body fat before entering its pseudo-hibernation during the winter months.
And while bears, and particularly grizzlies, are some of the region’s most prominent wildlife, huckleberries are a keystone species that nourish a range of animals throughout the food web.
“What I want to do is create a predictive map of productivity and phenology,” Graves said. “In the long term, we’re interested in predicting climate change effects, and from the management perspective, to identify options that might help with maintaining resiliency for that food source.”
As warmer weather and altered precipitation patterns become the new norm, Graves said, that map could allow biologists and land managers to more effectively predict where huckleberries will be plentiful and to create the conditions to allow the plants, and the numerous species dependent on them, to thrive.
“Managers are already managing with the best available data they have,” she said. “It would improve their ability to manage habitat for species.”
In May, Graves headed up the Sperry Trail on the west side of Glacier National Park, performing early-season checks on two of the sites where she monitors the berry bushes’ productivity and phenology, the timing for different stages of flower and fruit development.
Each site contains a pair of wildlife cameras and a temperature sensor, allowing Graves to determine how many days each site reaches the minimum temperature for the plant to grow.
During each visit, she also gathers observational data: What percentage of the plant is dead or leafless? Are there tent caterpillars or other bugs munching on them? What stage are the berries in, or if there are flowers, are there any bees taking interest?
“We didn’t even know what was pollinating the huckleberries until last year,” Graves said. “The bar for saying it’s a pollinator is very high, but these were hanging upside-down on the flowers, so they would be ‘likely pollinators.’”
So far, her group of researchers has identified six species of bumblebees that act as huckleberry pollinators in Glacier.
Despite the extensive note-taking, however, she said one of the biggest challenges is simply figuring out where to start with a plant that has largely escaped close scientific study and defied multiple attempts to cultivate it as a commercial crop.
“A lot of this is, there are all these sort of interesting and complicated questions, and we’re collecting information on a few,” she said. “There’s a million questions you can ask, and part of our job is to pick the right ones.”
To help answer those questions that fall outside her expertise, she has pulled together a multidisciplinary group of scientists including climate experts, bear biologists, botanists and an entomology student studying pollinators in Glacier National Park.
She’s also working with Salish Kootenai College in Pablo to monitor huckleberry sites on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and has tapped the U.S. Geological Survey’s Fort Collins Science Center to develop a geocaching cellphone app (appropriately named “ScienceCache”) to crowdsource the time-intensive task of checking her scattered huckleberry sites throughout the year.
Graves’ rigorous record-keeping is also within the protocol of the National Phenology Project, where she publishes her findings in an open-data format.
“Publishing data at that scale and having a system where people can collect it, even if it’s incompatible, it can still be useful,” Graves said. “I think there’s transferability in what we learn here, thinking about other systems that have these keystone species.”
Her research is still in the early stages, and Graves said she believes her data from the past two years are significant outliers compared to the norm. The bumper crop of huckleberries in 2014 followed a winter of heavy snow and long-lasting snowpack, while last year’s early snowmelt, record drought and summer heat waves produced one of the worst crops that many locals in the berry business had seen.
But even if they aren’t representative of typical huckleberry seasons, they might yield some insight for land and wildlife managers grappling with a changing climate and landscape.
“One thing it might be useful for is an early-warning system,” she said. “We might have a good idea of what the berry year is going to look like, and if it’s going to be a bad year, do a better job of managing bear-human interactions.”
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.