The Impacts of Climate Change on Huckleberries

By tampering with tempo and traditions of natural world, research predicts warming world will affect food-producing plant species like huckleberries

By Tristan Scott
Huckleberry bushes along the Huckleberry Mountain Lookout Trail in Glacier National Park on Sept. 10, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

For generations, Montanans have hewn to traditions born of the natural world’s rhythms, both as a means of survival and as cherished rites of passage.

The ministrations of hunting, harvesting, farming, and ranching have sustained families for eons, and not even the passage of time has eroded the lineage of certain heirloom recipes or tried-and-true techniques, passed down through the ages and preserved today for sentimental reasons as well as sustenance.

Increasingly, scientific studies on climate change show that seasonal variations resulting from a warming world will impact the dependability of some harvests, pushing back the blooming bounty of plant species on which wildlife — and familial foraging — depend.

In Northwest Montana, very few of those food-producing plants can contend with the culturally iconic huckleberry, whose prized fruit becomes a ubiquitous accoutrement to desserts and dishes each summer.

Families fill their freezers with gallon bags of the dark-red berries for preserves and pancakes, while grizzlies and black bears eat pounds of them in a single sitting, depending on the tart-tasting morsels for up to 15 percent of their diets.

And yet, for a species as popular as huckleberries, little is known about its phenology — in other words, its cyclic, seasonal behavior and how it’s affected by habitat and variations in climate.

A spate of recent studies, some of them using Glacier National Park and its surrounding forests as a living laboratory, have sought to fill that dearth of data with new research and understanding into the important role hucks play in local ecologies.

One such study, recently published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal “Agricultural and Forest Meteorology,” predicts that habitat suitability for huckleberries may decrease across much of its current range in the near future, expanding at higher altitudes and latitudes, but shifting the plant’s flowering and fruiting forward by more than a month by the end of the 21st century.

“Climate change is altering the suitable habitat and behavior of plant species around the world, with cascading effects on people and animals reliant upon those plant species as food sources,” according to an article titled “Climate change shifts in habitat suitability and phenology of huckleberry,” authored by research ecologist Janet S. Prevey with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Prevey and other researchers involved in the study relied on citizen scientist observations, including those in Glacier National Park, to model the potential changes and explain how it might impact other species, including humans accustomed to plopping the berries in their pancake batter.

“These large shifts in potential range and phenology could greatly alter trophic relationships and the timing and location of traditional harvests in the future,” Prevey writes.

In addition to its contributions to the productivity and biodiversity of forest ecosystems, and as an important food source for animals, huckleberries constitute “a vital component of social history and traditional Native diets in northwestern USA and British Columbia, and serves as the basis for non-tribal recreational harvesting and small-scale commercial operations,” according to Prevey’s study. “Traditional foods such as huckleberries are key to the sense of pace in many Indigenous cultures, and strong traditions exist for the collection, storage, and consumption of this species.”

Among land managers and Indigenous people there is a strong interest in preserving and restoring this culturally important plant species across the Pacific Northwest. Still, to date, limited knowledge is available on the current range of huckleberry, or how climate change will impact the future range or the timing of flowering and fruiting.

“In the past, Indigenous Peoples in the interior Columbia Basin moved to higher elevation sites in August for several weeks to collect and process berries,” Prevey wrote. “However, the timing of harvest festivals (thanksgiving celebrations traditionally held prior to harvest) has become less predictable in recent decades, with berries ripening much earlier in the season than in the past. This can make it much harder for people who have jobs with regular schedules to be able to schedule time off for harvesting.”

To predict how future harvest dates might shift, Prevey and her team developed thermal models for flowering and fruiting under current climate conditions and then used those models to predict how these events would change based on climate predictions.

“Our phenology models suggested flowering would advance 23–50 days (mean 35 days) and fruiting would advance 24–52 days (mean 36 days) by the end of the 21st century under the … scenario; greater advances in phenology were shown over more northerly and higher altitude regions,” according to the study. “These large shifts in potential range and phenology could greatly alter trophic relationships and the timing and location of traditional harvests in the future.”

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