Montana’s native forests are filled with a vibrant plant community that serves as a backdrop for the hiking, fishing, and hunting we all love. The bounty of harvest from native plants is unmatched by the huckleberry. For those who participate in berry picking, the spots you find are well kept secrets and the berries you pick are worth the effort.

The part of the huckleberry many people don’t see is the bloom in early spring. Huckleberries are one of the first plants to bloom after winter, gradually painting the forests with color. And the first sign of life we often hear before we see is the bumblebee. Montana is home to 28 species of bumblebees, the most species found in any state. Bumblebees emerge in early spring from their winter hibernation, they rely on the pollen and nectar from huckleberries to establish their colonies and to sustain them through the summer months.

There is evidence to suggest that without our fuzzy bumblebee friends, we wouldn’t see berries in the fall. Huckleberries bring in an estimated $1 million in revenue annually. Not to mention the social and traditional components that make huckleberries uniquely Montana.

It turns out those secret spots you’ve been keeping all these years aren’t that secret. Apart from bumblebees in the spring, the bushes provide cover and the leaves provide foraging opportunities for herbivores during the summer. In the fall, the huckleberry patches become even more valuable as our neighborhood bears begin preparing for winter. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks estimates that grizzly bears consume 30,000 berries a day to bulk up enough to hibernate.

The story of the huckleberry doesn’t stop there. An important component of many plants’ life cycle is the breakdown of the cell coat that happens during digestion and excretion and the subsequent fertilizer to jump start growth. The most common sign we see of bear activity also happens to be the most important for the rest of the forest. Nature works in cycles, from the water cycle to the rock cycle and everything in between. Huckleberries rely on bears, bears rely on bees to pollinate the flowers, which in turn make the berries.

As grizzly bear activity increases, Montana’s Gov. Steve Bullock has created an advisory council to help determine the best management strategies for our changing population and landscape. It is a complex issue; Montana’s unique landscape brings with it a diverse set of users. Human-grizzly interactions are unavoidable, but there are solutions.

One of the best things we can do is research how grizzlies use the landscape and how we can best coexist. This research is ongoing, and all of it contributes to a larger picture of Montana’s forests. The council is in a period of public comment and your thoughts are valuable in shaping the outcome of not only the delectable huckleberry, but also the grizzly bears we share our patch with.

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Rebekah Brassfield, of Pablo, is a wildlife research assistant at Salish Kootenai College.


Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.