How Might Climate Change Affect Huckleberry in the Pacific Northwest?

Written by guest author Gina Fiorile, Science Communications Specialist, U.S. Geological Survey National Climate Adaptation Science Center

Huckleberry bush
Huckleberry bush
Source: U.S. Forest Service

Huckleberry is both a culturally and ecologically significant plant species that is experiencing an altered growing season due to climate change. In the Pacific Northwest, huckleberry is an important food-producing species that is vulnerable to both reductions in habitat and shifts in phenology, or seasonal biological cycles such as the timing of flowering and fruiting. As rising temperatures and instances of drought increase in the region due to climate change, competitive interactions between huckleberry and other plant species could surge as a result. This competition can lead to reductions or expansions of suitable huckleberry habitat. Increased conflict between people and animals in harvest areas can also occur as the distribution of food plants shifts.

Huckleberry is a traditional food that is central to many Indigenous cultures’ sense of place. It also plays a vital role in the social history and the diet of traditional Native groups, as the collection, storage, and consumption of this species make up significant Indigenous traditions. Huckleberry is also the basis for non-tribal recreational harvesting and small-scale commercial operations in the region. For both tribal and non-tribal harvesting, the shifting or unpredictable growing periods make it difficult for those who have jobs with regular schedules to be able to schedule time off for harvesting.

As huckleberry growth shifts due to climate change, wildlife species such as grizzly bear, black bear, moose, elk, deer, birds, and other small mammals are also impacted. Huckleberry plays an important role in the biodiversity and productivity of forest ecosystems as berries, leaves, and stems are consumed by wildlife and the dense shrubby thickets are used as nesting habitat. Pollinators such as bumble bees and other native bee species also rely on huckleberry flowers as a significant food source.

Despite its importance, little is known about climate change impacts on the current and future range and phenology of huckleberry. This NW CASC-funded study aims to inform key questions about how huckleberry growth and distribution might change into the future. Predictive models were designed to show where the plant may be able to grow in the future based on projected future changes in temperature and precipitation as well as potential changes in the timing of flowering and fruit production.

Results show that in the Pacific Northwest, habitat suitability for huckleberry could decrease by 5-40% at lower altitudes and latitudes. Meanwhile, at higher elevations and latitudes, habitat suitability could increase by 5-60% by the middle of the century and continuing through 2100. Phenology is also projected to change over time. Flowering dates of huckleberry could advance by 11–31 days by the end of the century. Fruiting could advance by 13–37 days by the end-of-century under a low emissions scenario or by 24–52 days under a high emissions scenario. Greater advances in both fruiting and flowering projections were predicted to occur at higher latitudes and altitudes.

These projections of potential future changes in huckleberry habitat suitability and phenology can be used for planning management and restoration efforts of huckleberry in the Pacific Northwest. Future research activities could further support monitoring, management, and restoration efforts by focusing on the speed and direction of species migration and exploring the impacts of changes in huckleberry on pollinators, animals, and people which depend upon the species.

This study was funded by the Northwest CASC project Climate Impacts on the Locations and Availability of Traditional Food Sources from Native Northwestern Shrubs.

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