Huckleberries and Grizzlies
Andrew Deaett, Science Teacher

“Do you know how to use bear spray?” This was the greeting I received upon arriving at the Swan Valley Connections office in northwest Montana. I would spend the week volunteering through the non-profit organization Earthwatch, collecting data for a research project carried out by the USGS. Lindsay Wancour, the project’s principal investigator, made sure that our crew of five volunteers received a briefing on bear safety. Which, I appreciated as we were residing near the heart of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem grizzly bear recovery area. This area, we would learn from lead USGS researcher Tabitha Graves, is home to upwards of 750 grizzly bears officially, unofficially the population may exceed 1,000.

Like many inhabitants of the Rocky Mountains, including people, grizzly bears feast on huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum) when they ripen in mid-summer. In fact, huckleberries are thought of as a keystone species, providing significant percentages of calories to a variety of omnivores and herbivores of varying size. As our climate changes resulting from increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is unknown how huckleberries will be affected. This is the question the USGS is attempting to answer. This knowledge will be valuable to land managers such as the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service, who are tasked with preserving the health of large, intact, ecosystems such as the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.

As the climate changes, several impacts are expected to affect the mountainous landscape of northwestern Montana. Temperatures are expected to warm, cycles of flood and drought may become more extreme, phenology (the seasonal patterns of life stages and processes) of pollinator activity could shift, and pest species may become more abundant. All of these factors have the potential to affect the phenology and abundance of huckleberries, which could have an enhanced impact on the ecosystem since huckleberries are a keystone species.

Throughout the week, our Earthwatch crew spent our time traveling through the Swan and Mission Mountains, recording data at sites ranging in altitude from approximately 4,000 to 6,500 feet. Each site had a variety of experiments designed to simulate indicators of climate change. These included drought simulation, flood simulation, pollinator exclusion, and defoliation by pest species. For each analysis, we measured huckleberry phenology, becoming quite familiar with the developmental stages of huckleberry. This includes the flower, disk, tulip, green berry, and finally the delicious ripe berries, we know and love. The work was rewarding yet tedious, as each berry needed to be counted on up to fifty plants per site.  

In addition to volunteering our time towards much-needed data collection, we found the opportunity to connect with one another and the landscape. My crew included a retired NASA psychoacoustian (I had to look it up), a professor of biology and environmental studies at Portland Community College, an art teacher from the Orchard School in Indiana, and an Environmental Science teacher at a private middle school in the Washington, D.C. area. While resting at our bunkhouse in the evening, we shared meals, discussed places that we know and love, entertained inquiries of conservation, and shared our trials, tribulations, and joys, as classroom teachers. While out in the field we marveled at wildflowers, rested in the shade of douglas fir, and gazed across the Swan Valley at the surrounding mountains. John Steinbeck wrote of Montana, “It seems to me that Montana is a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would make if mountains were ever put on my agenda.”

Now back at Conserve School, with 1,000 miles of long lost prairie between me and the mountains of Montana, I am hopeful for the future of conservation. I return with new skills in ecological research, an appreciation for large scale landscape conservation, and a renewed respect for all of the creatures with whom we share this precious planet. As summer wanes, and we prepare for the arrival of CS19, I wonder, what will we discover together?

Photos contributed by Andrew Deaett, Science Teacher.