Saving the Wild Huckleberry By Taming It

IDAHO’S state fruit is delicious, free to pick on public lands and a major source of antioxidants.

Even beasts, from the bear to the blue grouse, dine on it regularly during the summer and fall. But the berries’ wide appeal is exactly the problem, historically. In Idaho, Montana and Washington the huckleberry is a case study of what happens when a plant everybody likes grows in a place everyone can get to–but no one wants to regulate.

Explorers and pioneers have mentioned huckleberries–and other fruits mistakenly labeled as such–in continental temperate forests across the United States and Canada since the 1600s. Lewis and Clark noted them in their journals in both present-day Montana and Idaho, although Lewis didn’t share the enthusiasm of early pioneers for the fruit, remarking while he was among the Flathead tribe in Western Montana that the berries “did not appear to satisfy my appetite as they appeared to do those of my Indian friends.”

He was right, however, to note the huckleberry’s importance to Native American diets. The Yakima tribe in Washington, for instance, valued the berries enough that control of picking grounds figured prominently into the tribe’s treaties with the U.S. Government.

Tribes around the Northwest also historically burned large patches of forest specifically to encourage huckleberry growth–and the camas as well–in a prescient method of early forest management. That model wasn’t quite so popular to white populations in lumber-loving Idaho, but forest managers here did wonder aloud as far back as the 1930s whether their government was favoring a less-valuable crop by focusing on lumber rather than berries.

Still, those few isolated objections aside, “for the most part, the Forest Service has only managed tall skinny green things called trees. Not much of anything else,” says Idaho’s wild huckleberry swami, Dr. Dan Barney, a horticulturist at the University of Idaho Sandpoint Research and Extension Center. The reason, he says: “I’ve been told by National Forest rangers that they simply are not interested in other forest products.”

With the administrative eye turned solely to logging, Idaho’s berry patches–particularly around Troy and into Montana–were host to mini-booms, busts and heated conflicts galore as local pickers competed for the best bushes with armies of migrant pickers whose population ebbed and swelled as market prices fluctuated. The only constant between the two groups was often the medieval-looking contraptions they both used to harvest as many berries–and often branches and leaves–as possible.

This still-ongoing berry frenzy has left many historic berry groves barren and over-harvested, Barney says.

“In two days, graduate students gathered one-half of a handful of berries,” he said of a recent trip into the forest. “Commercial pickers had been there before us and stripped it clean. This was an area that, in former years, you could sit down without standing and have one to two gallons.”

Of course, part of the huckleberry’s appeal is that there can seem to be a bottomless supply. In Idaho, the berry’s range extends from the state’s right toe near the Utah border up to the Continental Divide at the Bitterroot Range, then arches west to the Cascade/McCall area and unfolds northward toward the Canadian border.

In other words, wherever the snow line is receding in high elevation coniferous forests in Idaho, look for huckleberries–and for people from outside of Idaho harvesting them, usually to put in products ranging from syrups and preserves to skin lotion. Seasonal workers harvesting for commercial berry purchasers is nothing new, says Barney. It’s just that the quantities they’re seeking seem to be on the rise.

“I take calls form the United Kingdom or France, or from the Eastern U.S., from food processors or brokers looking for a million pounds of berries at a time,” Barney says. “We’re seeing a lot of raw fruit being shipped out of our region with no economic return to our region, and no money coming back in to help manage or protect those [areas].”

A lifelong wild-huckleberry picker who learned to harvest from his grandfather near Warm River in Eastern Idaho, Barney has responded to the calls by looking closely at the respective demands of both wild huckleberries and the companies who love them.

For the berries, he logged long hours in the lab to determine what soil and sun conditions they require to thrive and what human practices­–such as careful tree thinning and controlled burns–would help to support existing berry reserves. Figuring out what the purchasers wanted wasn’t nearly so scientific: more berries, consistent quality and a predictable supply chain.

So, with help from some USDA funds, Barney says his office has created 97 domesticated–he calls them “improved”–versions of wild huckleberries. Within the next two weeks, Barney says, he’ll send 13 of these varieties to other researchers or to commercial nurseries. Next month, he’ll also take his huckleberry conservation and management findings to managers at Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, home of the Yakima nation’s famed Sawtooth Berry Fields.

“We’ll do work with the Forest Service and anyone else in the world who wants to change this,” he says. “What we would love to do is to keep the wild stand up there for the recreational pickers and the native peoples and the small mom and pop producers, locally owned processors and so on. For the very large scale purchasers, let’s produce them in managed forest stands on private land, or in fields, like we do other food crops.”

And the taste: Barney says his Frankenberries are consistently darker and richer-flavored than wild huckleberries. They’re delicious, he insists, although he adds that his favorite way to serve huckleberries is still just to throw a handful of wild ones into pancake batter before cooking.