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Active Management on the Hiawatha leads to successful blueberry season

Blueberry Season has arrived – patch of blueberries in Michigan’s Hiawatha National Forest. USDA Forest Service photo.

MICHIGAN – Summer has come to the Hiawatha National Forest, bringing with it the promise of another blueberry season. Blueberries provide food for wildlife as well as for humans, so whether you’re a black bear or a human, you’ll be glad to know that you can predict where to find berries based on recent forest management activities.

Over time, as its branches age, a wild blueberry bush naturally becomes less productive. This makes sense because blueberries evolved with periodic wildfires. Since the retreat of glaciers from this region approximately 10,000 years ago, certain ecosystems on the Hiawatha National Forest evolved with frequently recurring wildfires. Native Americans also used fire to help manage vegetation and hunting habitat prior to European settlement of the area.

With these facts in mind, USDA Forest Service land managers use vegetation management activities, such as clearcutting and low intensity prescribed fire, to mimic the natural and historic wildfire patterns. These practices benefit species native to the local environment -- and they promote blueberry production by eliminating competing vegetation and removing worn out blueberry bush branches to make room for vigorous new branches with lots of flowers.

“In order to maintain an ample supply of productive blueberry bushes, we methodically plan our management in blueberry habitats,” said USDA Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Micah Reuber, who is stationed at the Hiawatha National Forest’s Gladstone headquarters.

On a rotational basis, each year different parts of the National Forest are treated to benefit blueberries and support other management objectives.

“Blueberries and other native species benefit from vegetation management activities like clearcutting and low intensity prescribed fire,” said Eric Rebitzke, Hiawatha National Forest fire management officer.

Tired, old blueberry bushes begin to rebound soon after treatment.

“Of course, production depends on the weather, but generally blueberry bushes are most productive between two and four years after treatment,” said Brenda Dale, Hiawatha National Forest’s East Zone Fire Management Officer. She noted that late July and August are usually the peak of the blueberry season here.

The Forest offers maps of the recent treatments in blueberry habitat areas to provide a good starting point from which to discover your very own “secret patch!”

Know before you go - If you head out to pick berries there are a few important things to remember:

  • Berries must be picked for personal use only, not marketed commercially. Commercial gathering requires a permit
  • It is important to recognize and properly identify the berries you pick and eat. Consuming wild plants may cause serious illness or death. Never eat plants you can’t confidently identify. Forage at your own risk
  • Get a national forest map and use it! Downloading a map onto your cell phone for use when you’re “out of range” is a good idea
  • Never drive on roads that aren’t identified as open on the Motor Vehicle Use Map.
  • Be safe! Dress appropriately. Be prepared for biting insects. Bring a map, compass, water and other necessities.

“Blueberries are a nutritious native food source, but many people find berry picking is also a great way to relax and enjoy the Forest,” said Cory Henry, a Hiawatha National Forest zone fire management officer.

Prescribed fire map of blueberries in Hiawatha
Map of recent prescribed burn locations on the Hiawatha National Forest with higher blueberry production. USDA Forest Service photo.