From bears to berries

A wildlife biologist turns her sights on climate science and the elusive huckleberry.

 

Researcher Tabitha Graves counts huckleberries, noting production, climate variations, pests and pollinators, to establish a set of data to measure the effects of climate change on the species.
Michael Gallacher/Missoulian

The current debate over removing certain grizzly bear populations from endangered species protection often strays into arguments over hunting, but grizzlies might have less to fear from hunters than they do from the possible demise of an unobtrusive berry. Studies of grizzly and black bear scat show that huckleberries, at times, can make up to 15 to 50 percent of their diet. Given that female grizzlies can’t reproduce without sufficient body fat — about 20 percent of their total weight — the barely knee-high huckleberry gains ecological significance far beyond its size.

Crouched amid deep green alpine shrubbery and grass, a beige U.S. Geological Survey cap shading her face, Tabitha Graves leafs through berry bushes, painstakingly counting huckleberries 6,000 feet up in the mountains of Glacier National Park on a cold August day. Graves is a wildlife biologist with the USGS in northwest Montana who has devoted most of her professional life to grizzlies. She thinks that understanding how climate change will affect huckleberries, one of their main food sources, is crucial to understanding how it will affect the threatened bears themselves.

Graves places a grid, roughly eight inches by eight inches and open in the middle like a picture frame, over a huckleberry bush and calls numbers off to her assistant: three ripe berries, five white, two green. “That’s a lot of white berries,” she comments before moving onto the next set of bushes. The whiteness is caused by a fungal infection called monilinia, but it’s not the main reason she’s here. In 2014, Graves launched a pilot project to compile a comprehensive record of this beguiling berry in order to figure out how changes in climate might affect its growth and production. She’s seeking to answer essential questions: Where and under what conditions do huckleberries grow best? Her careful counting and documentation of the health of huckleberry patches is intended to help forest and park managers make the best management decisions they can in an uncertain future.

While much is known about huckleberries, she says, “very little of what’s out there is in scientific journals or peer-reviewed studies.” Most of it is in the heads of a wide variety of people: tribal elders, commercial and recreational huckleberry pickers, bear managers, professional silviculturalists and botanists. Early research was done without modern tools or much knowledge of the effects of climate change, and most modern research is buried in obscure U.S. Forest Service technical reports. The previous baseline for Graves’s own work was set by Katherine Kendall, her predecessor at West Glacier’s USGS office, in the 1980s. Kendall’s work focused on berry productivity, and Graves is monitoring many of the same sites to understand how sunlight exposure, slope aspect, snowpack and other factors affect the plants’ timing and growth.

With no birds singing, no insects humming, no tourist helicopters droning overhead, the silence makes the day seem colder. For company, Graves and her assistant have only the occasional appearance of a group of hikers tramping downhill from a night at Granite Park Chalet, asking how far it is to the bottom. Counting berries in the woods is quite a change from Graves’s previous work analyzing samples of bears’ hair, but both approaches can help researchers better understand how grizzlies survive and reproduce.

Ripe huckleberries, which provide about 15 percent of bears’ diets in Glacier National Park, Montana.
Courtesy Tabitha Graves

While grizzly bears are generally seen as highly adaptable, climate change still poses a threat. Shifts in temperature and snowfall are likely to impact food sources, from huckleberries and serviceberries to salmon and whitebark pine nuts. And these changes, along with temperature fluctuations that have altered the times bears enter and exit their dens, intensify the possibility of conflict with humans, grizzlies’ greatest survival challenge.

 Graves leads the way to another site farther up the trail, where she keeps track not just of berry production, but also the effect of seasonal climatic variations, pests and pollinators throughout the growing season. The lower study sites were covered in bushes full of plump ripe berries. Here, the berries have not yet ripened. Graves and her assistant step carefully through the short, sparse foliage, dotted with tiny yellow St. Johnswort flowers and the husks of Glacier lilies, to find her discreetly tagged study subjects. Their voices calling out counts and percentages penetrate the high alpine silence.

The pilot project is scheduled to run for three more years, depending on funding, and even then the information will likely be incomplete. As Graves points out, her observation sites are located only in spots humans find easily accessible, which aren’t necessarily the same as those preferred by grizzlies. She envisions a study that relies instead on tracking grizzly bears, following their natural ranges to get a fine-grained idea of food sources and uses.

For now, she turns and heads back down the trail, pausing to pick handfuls of berries — free, for the moment, to eat and simply delight in their tart flavor.

Antonia Malchik writes from northwest Montana.

High Country News Classifieds
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening in its Salt Lake City office for a staff attorney. SUWA's...
  • DEVELOPMENT & COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST
    Idaho Walk Bike Alliance seeks a lover of bicycling, walking, and all modes of active transportation who willingly puts the car in the garage and...
  • COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR
    Friends of Inyo - the Communications Director is a full-time permanent position that reports to the Executive Director and utilizes communication strategies and production skills...
  • INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR
    High Country News seeks an editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk. This individual will lead a team of passionate journalists...
  • HIKING TO THE EDGE:
    Confronting Cancer in Rocky Mountain National Park. Poetry and photos on survival thinking. E-book and paperback available at Amazon.com.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • IPLC RIGHTS AND EQUITY PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    A LITTLE ABOUT US Founded in 1951, the Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FUTURE WEST
    Future West seeks an executive director to lead this dynamic organization into the future. Based in Bozeman, MT this well-respected nonprofit provides communities in the...
  • PART-TIME EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mitchell Museum of the American Indian Location: Evanston, IL Salary Range: $45,000 @ 24 hours per week. send resume: [email protected] www.mitchellmuseum.org
  • COMMUNICATIONS LEAD
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR
    Since 1989, The Nature Conservancy in Alaska has been doing work you can believe in protecting the lands and waters that all life depends on....
  • OUTDOOR PROGRAM - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
  • PUBLIC LANDS DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement Conserve Southwest Utah is seeking a dedicated advocate for conservation and public lands Public Lands Director a "make a difference" position Conserve Southwest...
  • FOR SALE
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT & MARKETING
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners is seeking a full-time Director of Development & Marketing. This is a senior position responsible for the development of all marketing...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR
    The Legal Director will work closely with the Executive Director in cultivating a renewed vision at NMELC that integrates diversity, equity, and justice. Black, Indigenous,...
  • WE'RE LOOKING FOR LEADERS!
    As we celebrate 50 years of great Western journalism, High Country News is looking for a few new board members to help set a course...
  • WIND RIVER WRITERS AND PHOTOGRAPHERS RETREAT BY THE NATIONAL BIGHORN SHEEP CENTER
    Enhance your writing or photography skills with world-class instructors in the beautiful Wind River Mountains. All skill levels welcome. Continuing education credits available.
  • EARTH CRUISER FX FOR SALE
    Overland Vehicle for travel on or off road. Fully self contained. Less than 41,000 miles. Recently fully serviced Located in Redmond, OR $215'000.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    identifies suspect buried trash, tanks, drums &/or utilities and conducts custom-designed subsurface investigations that support post-damage litigation.