Commercial harvesting of wild huckleberries is happening on a scale not before seen in the Kootenays. Roughly thirty harvesters working in the Yahk area are picking hundreds of pounds of berries per day, while others are removing entire huckleberry bush branches to pick the berries off at home.
“Picking your own huckleberries is a long-standing part of our culture, balanced with people and other animals on the land, but large-scale commercial harvest threatens to throw the system out of balance,” says John Bergenske, Wildsight Conservation Director. “We need to stop or at the very least regulate commercial harvest of wild foods to make sure there is enough for everyone. Just as hunters cannot sell wild meat, people should not be harvesting unlimited quantities for sale.”
Natural Resource Officers have begun an investigation into the removal of plants under section 46 of the Forest and Range Practices Act for damage to the environment.
While no regulations govern commercial harvesting in general, the Yahk camp has been warned by Conservation Officers for dumping their culled berries near the town, creating a significant bear attraction.
“With grizzlies eating well over a thousand pounds of berries per year to fatten up for their winter hibernation,” says Bergenske, “we’re worried that some bears might struggle to find enough berries in their territories because of the scale of the commercial harvest.”
A thousand pounds per day of huckleberries are crossing the border at Kingsgate with roughly half that quantity coming from the Yahk camp, according to FLNRO staff.
The harvesters plan to follow the berry crop in the East Kootenay until the first frost.
Commercial harvesters clear out entire areas, leaving few berries for bears or people picking for their own use.
The impact of commercial harvesting on bears is not well studied, but commercial harvest of hundreds of pounds per day in one area is likely to reduce food availability for wildlife.
“This commercial harvest is not respectful to the spirit of the berries and not respectful to the other animals who could be eating the berries,” says Bonnie Harvey of the Ktunaxa Nation, who saw a large bin of culled berries rotting in the sun at the Yahk camp.
“If we respect the spirit of the berry, it will be able to feed people, feed the bears, and feed all living things,” says Harvey, “but if we disrespect the berry, it won’t provide in future years.”
According to research by internationally respected bear biologist Bruce McLellan in the Flathead Valley: Huckleberries are a major food source for grizzly bears as they fatten up before hibernation, accounting for an average of 75% of bears’ diets in the late summer, between 30 to 60 pounds per day.
According the McLellan’s research: Grizzly bears have only half as many cubs in poor huckleberry years as they do in good huckleberry years, showing how critical the berries are as food for bears.
The Yahk area grizzly bear population is listed as threatened by the province.
BC initiated regulations on commercial harvest of berries, brought in with the Forest Practices Code the late 1990s, but these were withdrawn before they were ever enforced.