Beating around the bush

Farmworkers are trained to remove apples, grapes and other fruits without damaging the farmer’s investment in trees and vines.

Commercial huckleberry pickers, however, appear to have little training and little incentive to worry about the health of the bushes, according to a chorus of voices rising from the region’s forests.

“Actually, it’s not just commercial pickers, but anybody who uses those huckleberry rakes,” said Frank Snyder, 90, of Coeur d’Alene. “I’ve been roaming these forests and picking huckleberries for 50 years, and I can take you up and show you the damage they’re doing.”

The rake-type devices have been around in one form or another since the late 1930s, said Dan Leavell, Kootenai National Forest ecologist based in Libby.

“The first ones we know about were little rakes attached over coffee cans,” he said. “People would scrape the huckleberry bushes and berries would fall into the cans — along with a lot of leaves, stems and other plant parts.

“They could do tremendous production, but it would really damage a lot of the plants, and then there was a lot of work to do cleaning the debris out of the berries later on.”

The technique seemed to fade away to hand-picking, but it seems to be having a resurgence in recent years with manufacturers, some based in the Spokane and Libby areas, producing light aluminum versions of the huckleberry rake.

The late Lou Hyatt, who designed and was building a version of the rake in his Spokane-area garage in the 1970s and early 80s was adamant in a Spokesman-Review article that “people who buy my picker must learn how to use it properly without damaging the bush.”

Hyatt said the device should be used to “tickle the plant and let the berries drop into the bin” rather than raking the plant and damaging the branches.

Used properly, very few leaves should accumulate with the harvested berries, he said.

Nevertheless, people using the rakes don’t appear to have a gentle touch, said Snyder and Leavell, as well as elders of the Confederated Sallish and Kootenai Tribes.

“This is something our elders have been pointing out for 37 years,” said Rob McDonald, the tribes’ spokesman in Pablo, Mont. “Huckleberries are one of the staples of the Sallish-Kootenais, a plant we’ve depended on for 10,000 years. Our elders have seen in their regular spots how the berries do not grow back the same in years after commercial pickers have gone through.

“We’re pleased to see officials taking notice and moving ahead to study this. This isn’t a plant that can take abuse. You can’t grow it in your garden. It must grow wild.”

Removing too many leaves from a huckleberry bush can affect photosynthesis and may inhibit the next year’s production, Leavell said. “We don’t have good documentation of the impacts, but we’re starting this year to look into it seriously,” he added, pointing out that the topic of huckleberry bush damage came up this winter at a meeting of regional grizzly bear experts.

“As a forest, we’re trying to get a handle on this. For the first time, we’re looking at the damage angle, the impact of commercial harvest and how it all relates to wildlife habitat and especially bear habitat.

“If they’re really having an impact, we need to know that. I haven’t seen this myself, but I’ve heard that some people are actually using gasoline-powered pickers that really do a number on the plants.”

Currently commercial huckleberry pickers area required to have permits on a few forests, but not on the Kootenai and many others. “That could change,” Leavell said.

Grizzlies are prized by the Sallish-Kootenai Tribes, McDonald said, pointing out that “in the Mission Mountains we have the only grizzly refuge in the lower 48 states.

“We don’t interfere with the bears in huckleberry season and they don’t seem to interfere with us,” he said. “We have no concern that grizzlies will take more than their fair share.

“Picking huckleberries is ingrained in our culture. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of somebody’s aunt or even a frail great grandmother demanding that their family take them out picking huckleberries.”

Harvesting berries is also part of Snyder’s summer routine, and he said he’s sick about what he’s seeing.

“First the Forest Service gates the roads and locks the disabled and elderly people out of their favorite huckleberry spots and then they let the commercial pickers go in and ruin the bushes,” he said. “I talked to a ranger and he said there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it.”

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