Competition for huckleberries is creating conflicts in the woods, with reports of pickers fighting over patches of the sought-after berries.
Gathering huckleberries is a cherished summer ritual for many Inland Northwest residents. This year, they’re competing for an early but limited crop because of the drought.
“We’re hearing reports of people being threatened – they’re being told by other pickers that this is their patch and those kinds of things,” said Jason Kirchner, a spokesman for the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. “That’s simply not acceptable. This is public land, this is recreational picking. There’s no claim-staking for huckleberries.”
Drought conditions have also led to more complaints about illegal, commercial harvests on national forest land. In their haste to collect berries, commercial pickers sometimes use rakes or rip the shrubs out of the ground, trashing picking areas for years to come.
The Idaho Panhandle National Forests allows individuals to take a “reasonable amount” of huckleberries for personal use, without setting a weight limit. Commercial harvest is prohibited, with fines starting at $250, Kirchner said.
“If you’ve ever come across a commercial operation in the woods, it completely removes the opportunity for someone else to come in later and pick … They just clear out the sites,” he said. “We want everyone to have the opportunity to pick huckleberries.”
A man was recently cited for commercial harvesting in the Coeur d’Alene River Ranger District. He reportedly had 50 to 60 gallons of huckleberries with him, already divided and packaged for sale.
The Forest Service encourages individuals to report conflicts and commercial picking, including vehicle make and license plate numbers.
“We can’t catch them every time,” Kirchner said, “but when we do find them, we issue tickets.”
Huckleberries typically grow at elevations above 4,000 feet, which are mostly public lands. The tangy berries are in high demand, fetching $45 to $60 per gallon at roadside stands and farmers markets. That creates incentives for people to flout the law. And once the berries have left the forest, it’s difficult to prove where they came from.
Policing the harvest is difficult across such a large landscape, said Boyd Hartwig, a spokesman for the Lolo National Forest in Western Montana.
“When you’ve got a couple million acres, it’s hard to monitor who’s picking, how much they’re picking and how much they picked the day before,” Hartwig said. “We expect people to do the right thing – it’s an ethical obligation of being a citizen.”
The Kootenai Tribe of Idaho recently met with Idaho Panhandle National Forests officials, urging the agency to do more to crack down on commercial pickers.
Huckleberries are one of the tribe’s traditional foods, important to culture and subsistence diets, said Gary Aitken Jr., the tribe’s chairman.
“Specifically this season, when there are so few berries – it is important to monitor and control illegal commercial picking,” he said in a statement. “Illegal commercial picking marginalizes the ability for tribal members and others to have berries.”
Many recreational pickers are equally passionate about protecting the resource, Kirchner said. They’re emotional when they call the Forest Service.
“Picking huckleberries is the most important thing in their summer, and they want to know why we don’t regulate it more,” he said.
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