COLUMN: Love of huckleberry picking squashed for the bears

Gathering foods from the forest can be peaceful, but think about the effects on the ecosystem.

Gathering foods from the forest can be peaceful and practical, but have you ever thought about the effects it can have on the ecosystem?

Huckleberry picking is something that many of us like to do while out on a walk or hike — eating them as a snack or collecting a bucket to take home and make jam or pies.

This year, B.C. saw a staggering amount — as much as a thousand pounds per day — of huckleberries commercially picked from the forests of the Kootenays, particularly the East Kootenays.

This amount may not be a sustainable rate of harvest when thinking about the forest as an ecosystem that feeds itself. Arguably, berries in the forest are more valuable to the wildlife that live there than to us.

Bears play an important role in the ecosystem and are intricately intertwined with many life processes. Though they are large, 85 per cent of a black bear’s diet is plant-based.

Food is important to all animals but for bears, one season is critical to their survival. Because they hibernate in the winter, they need to pack on a lot of fat in the late summer and fall. At that time, huckleberries are a very important food for bears to help pack on fat for the long winter slumber.

On average, a bear in the late summer will eat 30 to 40 lbs of huckleberries a day. Yowza.

It has been shown that the quantity of the huckleberry harvest has direct effects on the health and growth of bear populations. If it’s a poor huckleberry year, the bears will suffer.

Conservation officers in the region are worried that the bears may not be able to find the amount of berries that they will need to prepare them for hibernation. If they can’t find enough food in the wild, those that don’t live near us may not make it thru the winter.

Those that live near us often search for food in our communities and can become problematic. The grizzly bears in the Yahk area, which are currently listed as endangered, may also now have to deal with not finding enough berries for hibernation if commercial harvesting continues in the area.

For anyone who has picked huckleberries, they are easy to pick. However, those serious about harvesting for the market will use berry rakes or even cutting off branches of the plant to maximize their effort. Doing this doesn’t leave much behind for bears or for the plant to re-seed itself.

Since huckleberry picking isn’t regulated, currently there’s no way of ensuring there will be berries available for bears and other wildlife to eat. So how can you and your community enjoy foraging while sustaining bear populations?

Here are a few tips when venturing off the beaten path:

1. Take only what you need — about 10 per cent of berries per plant is a good practice.

2. Be careful to not destroy the habitat and be gentle to the plants.

3. Skip the harvest in bad years. If there isn’t much food in the forest, leave it for the wildlife.

It may also be important to implement regulations in commercial harvesting. Groups like Wildsight are even calling for the huckleberry harvest to be banned.

Starting a dialogue regarding ethically sourced berries between sellers and consumers is important. So the next time you go to buy that $10 jar of huckleberry jam from the market, it might be useful to have a conversation with the seller to spread awareness of the implications of over-harvesting.

Huckleberry picking is a wonderful activity to enjoy what nature has to offer us. If sharing is caring, then let’s do less taking and leave more behind.

Beth Newbery and Heidi Korens are Second Year Recreation, Fish and Wildlife students at Selkirk College in Castlegar.

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