Huckleberries

September 19, 2022

I came across a story in the back section of today’s newspaper addressing the difficulty of locating huckleberries in northern Idaho and eastern Washington this year.  Even when pickers encountered healthy bushes, they had few berries or none.  While that may be discouraging for human pickers, grizzly bears and other wildlife depend on the berries as a key food source.  Tabitah Graves, a US Geological Survey (USGS) scientist, said she started tracking huckleberries because they are a very large part of bear diets, comprising over 50% of their diet in the peak of summer as they bulk up to hibernate.  Huckleberries have also been found in scats of coyotes, martens, and weasels, and wildlife cameras have recorded pictures of all kinds of birds and small mammals eating huckleberries.  Janet Prevey, another USGS scientist, says the plants may become less prevalent at some lower elevation and drier sites.  That could mean huckleberries recede from some of the plant’s southern range and advance in northern latitudes. 

When I looked online, I found Huckleberry is a name used in North America for several plants in the family Ericaceae, in two closely related genera: Vaccinium and Gaylussacia.  Huckleberry is a North American variation of the English dialectal name variously called ‘hurtleberry’ or ‘whortleberry’ for the bilberry.  In North America the name was applied to numerous plant variations all bearing small berries with colors that may be red, blue, or black.  It is the common name for various Gaylussacia species, and some Vaccinium species, such as Vaccinium parvifolium, the red huckleberry, and is also applied to other Vaccinium species which may also be called blueberries depending upon local custom, as in New England and parts of Appalachia.  Four species of huckleberries in the genus Gaylussacia are common in eastern North America, especially the black huckleberry (G. baccata).  The huckleberry is the state fruit of Idaho.

Native American tribes intentionally used fire to regenerate shrub fields and make them produce more huckleberries but those were low intensity burns.  Huckleberries need ample sun and tend to like the types of openings that fires often create.  When forest canopies close in because of plant succession, berries are often shaded out.  Many of today’s fires are high intensity, driven in part by higher temperatures (climate change) and a buildup of biomass (fire suppression).   It is unclear what kind of impact more severe fires would have on the distribution of the berries. Huckleberry habitat may be reduced by 5% to 40% in the Northwest and that it could expand 5% to 60% in northern British Columbia, Canada.  The timing of flowering and fruit could change by as much as 50 days.  Not so good for the grizz.

THOUGHTS:  As mentioned, huckleberries in Maine are called blueberries.  One of the favorite books for my sister’s children growing up was called Blueberries for Sal.  This charming story has been loved by readers since its first publication in 1948.  This follows the story of two mothers who think their child is following them, only to discover the cub and child have switched (spoiler alert: both go home with the right mother).  As huckleberries become scarce or move locations humans and animals are going to find it harder to locate this important food source.  Act for all. Change is coming and it starts with you.

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