For the love of huckleberries

Posted by Renee Magyar on July 26, 2016

Planning team uses modeling to inform benefits of restoration activities for huckleberry habitat.

Photo credit: Keir Morse

Every year, the summer months bring a fresh rush of huckleberry prospectors to the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. Huckleberry picking is a favorite past-time of numerous visitors to the national forests, and the berries make a tasty addition to pies, muffins, pancakes, and many other dishes. Knowing the location of a good huckleberry patch is often equated to having a favorite fishing spot -- no one wants to reveal their favorite locations, but everyone wants to know where to find the most productive sites.

There are five species of huckleberries in the Blue Mountains, with the most common (and easiest to harvest) being the big huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum). As an understory species, big huckleberry can grow beneath a partially closed forest canopy, or in sunny openings. However, big huckleberry grows best in fairly open canopy forest conditions and thrives with consistent fires every 35-100 years. These plants prefer moist, well-drained soils and are mostly found on moderate slopes or benches, rocky hillsides, and avalanche chutes. The tart berries that grow on the plants are small and round, resembling dark blueberries. 

Historically, huckleberries were one of the primary food sources for Native American Tribes in the Blue Mountains. For generations, plentiful foods like salmon, roots, huckleberries, deer, and elk provided all of the food the tribes needed, making these resources culturally significant to this day. Other forest users have long-standing traditions of picking these wild berries to add to their favorite family recipes.  Huckleberries are also an important food source for a wide range of wildlife including deer, birds, rodents, insects, and bears. The plants also provide cover for birds and small mammals. 

Unfortunately, big huckleberry is not immune to the effects of current forest conditions in the Blue Mountains. Because we have been so effective over the past century in actively suppressing fire, forest stands that used to be fairly open are now dominated by overcrowded close-canopied young trees. These overcrowded forest conditions, combined with recent drought conditions, has caused greater stress on huckleberry plants, reducing their berry productivity.

Because huckleberries represent a culturally significant food as well as crucial habitat for many wildlife species, the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy team is looking at ways that landscape-scale restoration, with fuels reduction and prescribed fire, can enhance huckleberry habitat. The Forest Resiliency Project provides an opportunity for land managers to take a landscape-approach to creating or enhancing these habitats. The planning team worked with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) to complete huckleberry mapping that shows big huckleberry distribution across the Blue Mountains. This project was part of a larger ethnographic study of culturally significant plants undertaken by the CTUIR.  

The planning team can use similar methods, including tree species, canopy closure, and stand structure (the number and density of large or small trees in a given area), to identify where big huckleberry should be producing good crops of berries. Based on this modeling, proposed treatment data, and information found in studies throughout the Pacific Northwest, the planning team will run a post-treatment analysis to show how proposed treatments from the Forest Resiliency Project could affect big huckleberry production.

All of this information and data helps the planning team design vegetation treatments that take natural landscape patterns into consideration and promote suitable habitat for these delicious berries, while still accelerating the pace of restoration in the Blue Mountains. 

Do you want to know what others are saying about this project? Find out more by visiting the public reading room. Additionally, you can find notes from recent public engagement sessions on the project public engagement website.

This is the seventh of twelve issues of Features from the Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy brought to you by Sustainable Northwest and the U.S. Forest Service Blue Mountains Restoration Strategy Team. This monthly series highlights the environmental and economic challenges and opportunities present in the Blue Mountains region, and includes updates from the Blue Mountains Forest Resiliency Project.