Outdoors

Moderate huckleberry crop could help bear hunters

A late-season huckleberry sprouts from bushes on Schweitzer Mountain Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009.   JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
A late-season huckleberry sprouts from bushes on Schweitzer Mountain Sunday, Aug. 23, 2009. JESSE TINSLEY jesset@spokesman.com (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

HUNTING — A poor huckleberry year generally translates into good hunting for black bears that expose themselves more as they search lower and farther for food to fatten for winter.

Jim Hayden, Idaho Fish and Game regional wildlife manager in Coeur d'Alene, recently did an informal survey of hunters asking them to evealuate the huckleberry crop. The verdict was that this year's crop generally gets a C- grade — not great, but not terrible. 

That could help hunters some, but it may not lead to the harvest windfall Hayden was suspecting as he found few  berries in his personal forays.

Read on to see his report.

About 50 of you responded with an opinion on the huckleberry crop this year – THANKS!  I got results back from several parts of Idaho, and some from Washington as well.  Looking just at the Idaho Panhandle, individual experiences ranged all the way from “A” to “F” grade.  When it was all said and done, as a group you rated the 2011 huck crop as a C minus.  Not particularly good, but not totally out of whack either.  Units 1, 4 and 4A stand out with the poorest crops this year (in general), while Unit 5 was the only unit to get a B average:

 

Overall

C-

1

D+

2

C-

3

C+

4

D+

4A

D

5

B

6

C

7

C

9

C

Bears do just fine with serviceberries, buffalo berries, raspberries, elderberries, etc., but huckleberries are key.  In poor huck years, several things happen the next winter:

  • Cubs (and some yearlings) survive poorly in the den that winter.  In real bad years, very few cubs will make it and we’ll lose most of an age class.  We can track this for years from the ages of harvested bears (we get the age from that tooth we swipe from you by counting the rings just like a tree). 
  • Few new cubs are born the next year.  Female bears generally have to reach 100 lbs before their body will allow them to have cubs, and you’d be surprised at how many come up short of that in poor berry years.  It’s not surprising to lose most of this age class as well after a bad berry year.
  • The second year’s cub crop can also be affected a bit by poor female body condition.  Often we’ll see a reduction here as well, even though another year has gone by.  It seems that some females can’t recuperate in just one summer and birth rates can still be somewhat lower that second year.

The population dynamics of bears depends a lot on the amount of available food.  In Idaho, the means berries to a large degree.  Our bears are relatively small, and reproductive rates are slow.  In the eastern US, adult bears are substantially larger.  There, they have plenty of berries, but they also have a lot of “hard mast” and in particular acorns and beechnuts.  These are packed with oils (calories) and bears there can put on weight fast.  We can’t compete with that, but then again….they don’t get to live out here!

Generally, with a poor huck year, we see an increase in the fall harvest, as well as complaints of bears in towns.  Often this increase is mostly made up of male bears, for whatever reason (males generally move around more than females, so maybe that’s tied in somehow).  Based on the huck report, we might see a bit of an increase in the fall harvest, but maybe not as much as I was anticipating based on my own observations.




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Rich Landers

Rich Landers’ Outdoors blog


Rich Landers writes and photographs stories for a wide range of outdoors coverage, including a Sunday feature section and a Thursday column. He also writes the Outdoors Blog.


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