By ROB RICH
If you happened to be driving to check on the Jim Lakes trailhead last Thursday, you might have seen some peculiar folks crouched over huckleberries not far from the road. It’s June, of course, so nobody was feasting on northwest Montana’s most beloved wild fruit. Instead, we – volunteers and staff for a project with the Earthwatch Institute – were counting the fruits to come, one by one, and scratching out their tallies on clipboards (while swatting more than a few mosquitoes).
Huckleberries comprise fifteen percent of the annual diet of grizzlies in our region, and when the fruit is ripe and hibernation is near, berries are pretty much all the bears eat. This 2-4 month binge – called hyperphagia – when grizzlies consume over 10,000 calories to gain more than three pounds per day, is familiar to any hiker who has seen a globular mound of purple poop on the trail. While the glut is just compensation for the season of sleep of when the bears won’t eat a bite, it’s a short but significant time linking two iconic species. And as the climate changes, with droughts and fires more often and fickle, this bear-berry hinge point is getting harder and harder to predict.
As the timing gets more difficult to count on, there’s something we can do: count it! Phenology, the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals, is an approach that the Earthwatch Institute is proud to sponsor. As an international nonprofit that engages people in field research and education, Earthwatch recruits citizen-science volunteers who work on expeditions with local hosts and researchers. This Swan Valley-based project, now in its second year, is a partnership of Swan Valley Connections and the US Geological Survey (USGS).
We don’t track the lives of every berry in the woods. Lead USGS scientist Tabitha Graves has developed nine research plots throughout the Swan Valley, each with 20-50 plants serving as a treatment or control. She designed the treatments to simulate real challenges that affect huckleberry phenology, including drought, flood, insect defoliation, or the absence of pollinators. This work also integrates bumblebee observations and remote camera work with the huckleberry surveys, each of which becomes a key tool to determine wildlife use and climate change impact. Our diverse volunteers – including father-daughter pair from Singapore and a team of six Los Angeles teens this year – do not have to be specialists, but by the end of their trip are competent with hands-on skills in field ecology that bridge relationships between plants, pollinators, and bears.
This project isn’t about controlling the huckleberries’ fate, but rather about deepening our sense of their value as indicators for healthy ecosystems where grizzlies can thrive. Although we’ve learned a ton about grizzlies from experiments with radio collars, hair DNA, and poop, this project is uniquely vital because it quantifies (without intervention) the very resources and relationships upon which the existence of bears depend. And while nothing is simple when it comes to climate change, phenology is one of the best ways to see – through the lives of others – the cumulative forces that shape our seasons. Each volunteer observation helps fill the need for long-term ecological research and, more than ever, this is work that counts!