Huckleberries, Other Wild Berries Used in Grizzly Bear Research
By Toby Walrath
Photo of Wayne Kasworm surveying Huckleberries. Courtesy of Toby Walrath.
Like many Montanans Wayne Kasworm has been picking huckleberries in the same berry patches for decades. But it isn’t to satisfy his craving for Montana’s official state fruit; he gathers them for data to support 30 years of bear recovery research.
Standing amidst lush huckleberry bushes on a steep slope with a rod seven feet long marked in one meter increments, Kasworm explained that while there is a definite correlation between berries and bears, the factors are much more complex than simple berry numbers; “We keep a radio collard sample of bears and we also do a lot of work with trail cameras and snagging hair for genetics purposes.” Kasworm said.
Kasworm works for the Grizzly Bear Recovery Program that has been part of efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor and support grizzly bear populations in the Yaak-Cabinet region including a portion of the Selkirk mountains in Idaho.
One dozen huckleberry monitoring sites make up the specific locations used for monitoring that each include an imaginary line about 50 yards long where berries are counted just one time each year when berries are at their peak ripeness. A weather data logger constantly tracks temperature and humidity at 90 minute intervals throughout the year which Kasworm uses to compare berry production with annual weather conditions. The data collected is compared with a myriad of information that when overlaid over a 30 year period has resulted in complex annual reports that Kasworm says may eventually lead to a delisting of grizzly bears in the Cabinet-Yaak region.
According to current research grizzly bear populations are estimated at about 60 total bears in the Cabinet-Yaak region with recovery goals of 100 bears. Kasworm says that huckleberries are just one indicator of grizzly bear health and can be predictive regarding future bear populations. “Huckleberries are what puts fat on a bear and enables those bears to produce young and produce healthy young.” Kasworm said.
In poor berry years the mortality of bears often increases due to human/wildlife conflicts and natural decreased survival rates of cubs. Berries are picked at peak ripeness to evaluate what bears will likely be able to get out of the berries.
For the past five years Kasworm has incorporated a refractometer device to measure the sugar content of huckleberries. Originally developed for the grape grower industry, refractometers generate nearly instant sugar content results which provide researchers with valuable data about just how much nutrition is available for bears on a given year.
Huckleberry numbers are a key indicator for bear health and wellness but other berries are important as well. Individual plants like service berry, soap berry, mountain ash and buffalo berry are marked for berry counts too. “I’ve had some trees marked for 10-15 years,” Kasworm said.
Kasworm explained that during poor huckleberry years these berries act as a backup food supply for bears but other food sources may be alluring to bears as well. The USFWS encourages residents to keep anything with an odor such as compost, trash, dog food, livestock food, birdseed and beehives secured and protected to avoid conflicts. Annual bear reports are available to the public at
The Green Box Project…
Let’s go back in time a little. I remember the green boxes on Winslow’s corner that were right there on the turn out during one hot summer. We were all parked in front of them watching the fire on Grambauer mountain in 2000 seeing the fire crew in tents in the field. It’s a core memory. I don’t know about you but I remember riding along with my grandpa in our old beat up barely street legal red dodge ram “the trash truck” that didn’t go anywhere besides the green boxes in it’s retired age, that got maybe 10 miles to the gallon or as we say 10 gallons to the mile (I read somewhere that opinion pieces are taken more seriously if there is a element of humor, please laugh). In the winter I couldn’t imagine taking our old trash truck down Sand Hill above the weight station much less making that turn on the highway to the Troy Landfill.
The next year we had a mama black bear with her three babies crawling into the boxes. We slowly gained “bear proof” lids throughout the years. Finally they decided on a full upgrade to squash the bear problem by moving the boxes back behind where the original turnout is and added a big electric fence to keep the bears out. We used to have a man that would open the gate every morning and close the gate every night until he moved away and was never replaced. Since then the gates have been open 24/7, instead they added an electric mat to deter the bears. Now this is where the problem lies, if the people are misusing the boxes due to lack of maintenance and supervision, then who’s to say removing those boxes won’t cause those who misuse to just dump their trash everywhere, causing more trash for the county to clean up, we already have a bear problem the bears never moved away from the dump they still stroll around the community getting into everyone’s trash if it’s not taken out at least every other day during peak bear season on our personal properties out in the community of savage lake. Having to drive down to the landfill only during the hours that its open and depending on if other people’s work schedules allow them to or not that would mean Saturdays the landfill will be backed up or the risk of being turned away due to the landfill closing would be a huge waste of time, fuel and cause household garbage to build up on people’s properties raising bear risks, improper disposal of garbage into the forests, waterways and ditches.
People who already misuse the sites as is when before we could drive less than 5 minutes. That’s not even mentioning about winter the Community of Savage Lake can’t always get all the way to town and certainly will not be wanting to drive all the way to the Hecla site in winter to dump household trash, not to mention the amount of car wrecks down hwy56 that have happened just this year I don’t really think that road needs more traffic during the summer, it is less likely to be kept in eye on by police force being so far out of the way and not near any of the main chunk of the communities or in cell service if a emergency were to happen at the garbage site unlike the Savage Lake one which is in front of a city shop in cell service, the Savage Lake one could easily have cameras put in since it is less rural, bigger than the Hecla site already and there is internet access near, ZiplyFiber is supposed to be upgrading the internet down that end of hwy56 in the future anyways it is fast enough to run security cameras without upgrade. The community of Savage Lake is mostly retirees and disabled families, and they greatly appreciate having their Green Boxes easily accessible to them; losing them would be detrimental to the wellbeing of the communities, our forests, wildlife, and I am sure the other communities losing their sites feel similar. Especially without properly being informed that any of the decisions were being discussed and not being able to voice their opinions.
Submitted by Northern Attitude of Troy, MT.