Scientists can map hucks using satellite imagery

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A trio of researchers have found that oft-loved huckleberry bush can be mapped using high-resolution satellite imagery. One of the most common species of huckleberries, Vaccinium membranaceum leaves turn a bright red in the fall, U.S. Geological Survey scientist Tabitha Graves noted.

That makes it stand out, often starkly, from other vegetation. By using the National Agricultural Imagery Program satellite images, they were able to map huckleberry stands in Glacier National Park with an accuracy of about 83 percent in the open terrain and even in forested terrain they were able to determine stands at an 80 percent accuracy, Graves noted.

The mapping work was done by Graves, Carolyn R. Shores and Nate Mikle.

Being able to use satellite imagery to map huckleberries is significant for a variety of scientific applications, Graves noted.

For example, in recently burned areas like the Howe Ridge and Sprague Creek fires, researchers can now see how fast the berries regenerate, by comparing images over time. There’s also a host of other ways to use the satellite imagery data.

“This tool will be combined with future models of the timing and productivity of berries to inform managers of options for protecting food for bears, birds, pollinators, small mammals and humans,” Graves said.

Researches can also layer different imagery maps over top of one another. For example, one could layer the map of a wildfire over top of the map of huckleberry regeneration over the map of precipitation to see how the bushes best responded.

“While Glacier National Park was used as a test site for mapping huckleberries, this approach could be used around the world to map other important shrub and tree communities, or track the progression of disease or insect outbreaks,” said Shores, the lead author of the research.

The huck maps could also be used to determine the best places to put trails or campgrounds to avoid conflicts with wildlife. Huckleberries are a staple food for black and grizzly bears.

“Fine-scale maps of huckleberry distribution may also help managers better understand and manage patterns of human-bear wildlife conflict in areas with high human use such as Glacier National Park,” the study said.

The satellite imagery has another facet — it makes tracking huckleberries in a place like Glacier all the more easier. It would take thousands of man hours on the ground and in the air to gather the same data.

The study also predicted that huckleberry bushes are widespread, with approximately 22 to 31 percent of the park having some bushes. However the area predicted to have huckleberry bushes as the dominant shrub cover is much smaller, closer to 9 square kilometers. To put that in perspective, Glacier at 1 million acres is about 4,046 square kilometers, which means areas where huckleberries are the most obvious shrub are about two-tenths of one percent of the total park acreage, or about 2,000 acres. Of those, about 94 percent were more than 300 feet from hiking trails.

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