Many Alaskans take advantage of the wild berries that grow across the state every summer and fall. However, finding them has always been the challenge, which may be becoming more challenging.
A recent study published by the U.S. Geological Survey found that berry harvests across Alaska may be growing increasingly unpredictable. That doesn’t mean that they are disappearing — rather, it means that residents may not be able to forecast which berries will grow each year.
Jerry Hupp, an Anchorage-based research wildlife biologist with the U.S. Department of the Interior and one of the study’s authors, said of the 96 responses the researchers received, 67 percent said the berry harvests had declined or become more variable in the last decade.
The respondents were largely tribal environmental managers and long-time residents — those who would know the area best, Hupp said.
“For 7 out of the 12, more people reported that the harvest had declined or become more variable,” Hupp said. “Those changes are making it a bit more difficult for people to rely on a given berry being available for harvest.”
The berry numbers may fluctuate year to year because of temperamental weather conditions. Michelle Ostrowski, the education specialist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said that although there may be prolific berries one year, gatherers may not be able to find any the next.
She ran into that problem herself this year. When she went out to gather blueberries, although she was out in the wetlands, the plants were dry and there was nary a berry to be found, she said.
Crowberries, one of the more commonly harvested berries on the peninsula, may fluctuate with the weather, she said.
“I know that some years, it seems that there are less berries, but I think that that depends on the type of weather we’ve been having,” Ostrowski said. “I personally think that maybe depending on the type of spring we have, whether there’s enough snow cover to protect the plants in the winter, may correlate to the number of production of crowberries.”
With the last two winters, where the snowfall has been light and the weather has been warmer, berry bushes may not have been as productive, she said.
It’s hard to know how individual bushes or types of berries grow each year. For example, Ostrowski said she frequently sees red currant bushes flower, but rarely sees the berries. It could be because moose are “beating us to it,” but it could be that people also pick the berries quickly, she said.
Ostrowski, who leads educational tours for children on the grounds of the refuge center in Soldotna, said she tries to discourage visitors from picking the berries near the headquarters so other visitors can see them as well. However, people are still allowed to pick berries on refuge lands as long as it is for strictly personal use.
The study relied on a tool that some researchers are using more often: citizen-reported data. Either based anecdotal information which is later investigated or individual simple data points that are interpreted by a scientist, the style is being seen as increasingly valuable.
Hupp said the study was not intended to be a snapshot of the size of the berry harvest when it was conducted in 2013. Rather, the researchers intended it to be a perspective on the fluctuation of berry collection over time, showing the value of citizen-based environmental data collection, he said.
“We were referencing more that the people who are in rural communities, who work in rural communities, can serve as a network to provide observations on an array of environmental conditions,” Hupp said. “That’s a basis for a local environmental observer network that the ANTHC consortium has coordinated.”
That environmental network, known as LEO, provides members of the public with a way to report any unusual events or sightings in the environment to a statewide network. Because Alaska is so large, the network allows researchers to gather observations and investigate them if necessary. It is currently only in Alaska, but the Arctic Council plans to expand it to be an international circumpolar observation system.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks’s Alaska Sea Grant also recently launched a website that offers information to the public about changing conditions on Alaska’s coastlines and encourages them to report any observations they make.
Dr. Christa Mulder, a professor of ecology at UAF, has run several citizen science networks across the state, collecting a variety of plant-based data. Her current project is to monitor the budding time of several species of berry bushes across Alaska to research the effects of the lengthening growing season in Alaska, which she says has extended by approximately 45 days in recent years.
One of the challenges in maintaining a citizen science network to verify the truth in the data — with untrained volunteers, it is possible that some of the data may not be accurate. Mulder and her colleagues have offered webinars to train those with Internet access and flown some individuals from remote locations into Fairbanks to train them.
“When we first started, it didn’t occur to us to explicitly say, ‘You need to call the same plant No. 1 from week to week,’” Mulder said. “One of the ways we got around was to have people name their plants.”
Dr. Katie Spellman, a plant ecologist at UAF who worked with Mulder on the project, performed some of the training in remote villages. She said the data may even more reliable because the individuals have been well trained in how to collect this particular data.
Altogether, there is little data they have to discard as unusable, Mulder said. The benefit is that larger projects with a wider geographic set of data become possible, as flying out to the northwest coast of Alaska each week to monitor plant growth is cost-prohibitive, she said.
Teaching individuals to gather data can also open their eyes to what is happening in their environment, she said.
“When people start looking regularly at the plants in the field every week, they start noticing other things too,” Mulder said. “When it comes to kids,what we’re hoping ultimately to do is to connect people over places, to get young people thinking that yes, they really can be scientists.”
Spellman said the effect of citizen science networks goes beyond just the scope of the research. When people begin watching for a particular change, they begin to notice many of them, which prepares them for a changing environment, she said. For instance, many communities off the Alaska road system have not had contact with invasive species yet, but they may in the future. Teaching them to watch the environment could help catch the invasions before they become widespread, she said.
Citizen science allows people everywhere to contribute what they see to researchers, Spellman said. Earlier this year, she visited the tiny native village of Shageluk in western Alaska, which is home to approximately 150 people.
“To have somebody from the university show up and say (to the villagers), ‘You are my collaborators,’ that was really awesome,” Spellman said.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.