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Obsessed with its huckleberry patch, this black bear never stopped eating as a line of equally oblivious hikers passed on Glacier Park’s Loop Trail below Granite Park Chalet.

We know the least about the plant we love the most in the mountains.

When Tabitha Graves took up carnivore research for the U.S. Geological Survey base at Glacier National Park, one of the biggest puzzles needing attention was the role huckleberries play in the food chain. Although creatures from grasshoppers to grizzlies like the purple fruit, we know little about what the berries themselves like.

“The more I’ve gotten into this, the more I’ve realized how important they are,” Graves said. “All kinds of birds eat them, as do small mammals. We’ve found coyote scats with berries in them. We’ve seen wasps eating them. And of course, humans eat a lot of them.”

Then there are the snowshoe hares and deer and moose that munch on huckleberry leaves, at least six species of bee that collect huckleberry pollen, and who knows what kinds of mycorrhizal fungi that grow together with the roots. Did we mention bears eat them, too?

All that might explain why huckleberries have resisted all attempts at domestication. The inability to grow huckleberry bushes in a greenhouse or garden has frustrated researchers for decades. It’s also left big parts of the plant’s life cycle unknown.

“We’re trying to get basic data like how many flowers on bush produce how many green berries, and then how many of those go on to be ripe berries,” said Janine Lichtenberg, who heads the wildlife and fisheries department at Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo and has teamed up with Graves to fill in some of those huckleberry blanks. “Many people think of them as dessert, but historically, huckleberries were a huge part of the Native American diet. They’re still considered a significant plant for Indian people today.”

Part of the research project Lichtenberg and Graves have set up involves talking with Native American cultural committees and tribal huckleberry harvesters about their oral history on the plant. Tribes in huckleberry habitat from western Montana to Oregon have extensive customs and traditions regarding how to find good berry patches, how they vary from season to season and how fire affects berry productivity.

Then the biologists try to confirm those anecdotes with field observations. They’ve set up remote cameras taking daily pictures to pin down the timeline of huckleberry leafing, budding, fruiting and ripening – as well as the progress of other plants growing in the same patch that might give hints about bigger forces at play.

“There was a lot of work done long ago, and most of it was looking at variation across sites or variation across time – but they weren’t able to look at both together,” Graves said. “You can’t take what they learned and make a predictive map.”

The new project plans to combine elevation, rain and snowfall, tree cover, sun aspect, slope grade and soil conditions over several years to build a bigger picture of what huckleberries like and don’t like. And to be specific, the project looks at the common Vaccinium membranaceum huckleberry. Related species like the little whortleberry and some hybrid varieties must wait for another research window.

A lot of people will be interested in the answers. Wildlife managers know that good or bad huckleberry crops influence how many black and grizzly bears wander into town looking for apples or bird feeders – but they don’t know how to predict a good or bad year. Huckleberries react to drought and drenching conditions, but can they forecast them? How might forest thinning and hazardous fuels work affect huckleberry patches?

All those questions have attracted interest from federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, tribal governments in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, and citizen science groups such as Swan View Connections. Several student interns from Salish-Kootenai College, University of Montana and nearby schools have joined the effort. As funding becomes available, Graves and Lichtenberg have several more years of work planned out.

“The big-picture question is what is necessary for these plants to be as healthy as they can be?” Lichtenberg said. “They are such a big part of the ecosystem of the Pacific Northwest.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.