By Colleen Wieman (Communications Volunteer) and Ray Yurkewycz, Executive Director
Delicious and dark, the once abundant huckleberry enticed human and animal foragers alike. But since the last century, huckleberry habitat has rapidly declined.
“They’re being infringed upon and overshadowed by larger, competing vegetation,” said Jamie Tolfree, Huckleberry Restoration Coordinator with Pinchot Partners.
According to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest Huckleberry Management Strategy, a draft guide compiled March 2017, most Pacific Northwest Huckleberries were found in open and forested habitat between 3,000 and 5,400 elevation. (1)
“They are abundant at higher elevations and help provide a diverse habitat,” Tolfree said.
Habitat originated from uncontrolled wildfires and fields were continuously maintained through Native American prescribed burning. (2)
In the early 20th century, Native American cultural burning practices were restricted and invasive vegetation overwhelmed huckleberry habitat. (3)
In addition to plant succession, huckleberries are also threatened by climate change, a decline in native bee population, and non-native insects. (3)
“Recent research indicates a presence of an invasive fruit fly, which could have negative future impacts on the shrubs,” said Jessica Hudec, Gifford Pinchot National Forest Ecologist, who provided information on fire ecology and management for Sawtooth and Pole Patch Huckleberry Restoration Projects and recently drafted the Huckleberry Management Strategy.
It is difficult to measure the extent of lost habitat, but tribal harvesters and members of the public have noticed a marked decline in huckleberries. (2)
Fortunately, there’s hope.
Many organizations, including the U.S. Forest Service, Pinchot Partners, Cascade Forest Conservancy, and the Cowlitz Tribe are working to restore habitat.
“Restoration primarily involves removing competing conifer trees,” Hudec said.
There are twelve different species of huckleberry in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, but restoration efforts have mainly focused on the Big Huckleberry, Vaccinium Membranaceum, which is prized for its taste and productivity. (1)
“(Huckleberries) provide some economic benefits through commercial sales,” Hudec said. “Culturally, huckleberries are a sacred food for local Native American tribes and the (U.S.) Forest Service has treaty responsibilities to maintain that resource.”
The treaties of 1854 and 1855 preserved the rights of members of the Medicine Creek Treaty tribes and the Yakama Nation to gather roots and berries on open and unclaimed lands. The Handshake Agreement of 1932 between the U.S. Forest Service and Yakama Nation set aside areas east of Forest Road 24 in the Sawtooth Berry Fields for the Yakama Nation. Sawtooth has become increasingly important to the Yakama Nation as other traditional huckleberry fields have been lost to forest succession. (2)
Restoration areas are open to public harvesting. “Some areas are open to all for recreational or commercial picking, while some areas are reserved for tribes,” Hudec said. “It’s best to check with your local Ranger District office for a map of open areas.”
Efforts to restore huckleberry habitat has taken decades.
“Huckleberry restoration efforts on the Gifford Pinchot began in the 1970s. Enhancement work in recent years has occurred on Mowich Butte, in the Sawtooth Berry Fields, and in the Pole Patch area,” Hudec said. “The Pole Patch project is nearing completion at this time, but huckleberry restoration is an ongoing process.”
The Pinchot Partners, Cascade Forest Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service are monitoring treatment efforts to assess how the bushes respond to restoration efforts. (4)
“We want a permanent effort to restore huckleberry habitat and, using GIS, find other potential areas for restoration,” Tolfree said. “Hopefully other organizations can use our strategy to adapt to their forests.”