Caven Wade

(UM Legislative News Service) A bill tromping through the Montana Legislature would repeal a 2007 law that sought to protect the authenticity of the almighty Montana huckleberry by requiring that anyone labeling something as “huckleberry” register their berry patch with the state Department of Agriculture. 

“Not a single person ever told the government where their huckleberries were. Because, I believe the first rule of huckleberry club is: ‘Do not tell anybody where your huckleberries are,’” Cort Jensen, the department’s chief attorney told the Senate Agriculture, Livestock and Irrigation Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 31. 

Huckleberries are a staple to the Montana economy and carry a mysterious lure that attracts tourists from all over the world. These berries are also rare and only grow in particular climates. They require high altitude and acid-rich soil, which makes the Rocky Mountains a perfect habitat for the berries.

Their rarity combined with their novelty makes them heavily sought after by companies and berry pickers. Montana huckleberries can go for over $60 a gallon on websites such as Craigslist.

Jensen said the 2007 law, which was supposed to levy criminal penalties and fines against people who mislabel huckleberry products or do not register their berry patches, was probably introduced and passed in good faith, but that there was never any money allocated to enforcing the program.

So, when Gov. Greg Gianforte asked for agencies to look for ways to clean up Montana Code as part of his “Red-Tape Initiative,” the huckleberry law was part of the code that could just go away. Rep. Paul Green, R-Hardin, is sponsoring House Bill 94 on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, which would strike the 2007 law.

"Since the passage of this law, the huckleberry prohibition bootleggers have never once registered a patch. The huckleberry mafia has been so influential that there has never been a citation for illegal huckleberry activity," Green said. "I believe it's time we repealed the huckleberry law and allow huckleberry picking to come out of the dark and become productive citizens of our great state."

HB 94 passed through the House of Representatives 96-2 on Jan. 20 and moved to the senate committee, where passed on a 7-4 vote Wednesday, Feb. 1, and will now be debated by the full Senate, which can then send it to the governor's desk.

Jensen told lawmakers that while there are certainly cases of counterfeit huckleberry products, that the consumer protection laws in Montana would cover any cases of wrongdoing. 

"While the goal of preserving huckleberries is something that I think most people would agree there's got to be a way to do it, this particular legal structure didn't really get us to where that needs to be," Jensen said.

Jensen said the need to register a patch is particularly problematic because most huckleberry fields are located on public land, making them ripe to attract outsiders who might track them down and strip them clean.

The revealing of patches is one of many issues the legislature could face concerning huckleberries this session.

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, raised concerns about striking a law that could help protect patches from being overharvested, referencing stories of pickers using "strippers" or “claws” to remove the berries from a plant more quickly. These claw-like devices can damage or destroy the plants.

"I know we love huckleberries in Montana; of course, I'm partial to the ones in the northern part of the state, but that is a legitimate concern, as people are damaging our product that grows in only specific locations," Morigeau said. "I think one of the ways to protect those unique products we have here is to have this process of registering and identifying where people are." 

Morigeau asked Jensen if there might be other ways to protect this especially rare natural resource. 

"Certainly, there are other ways you could go about doing it to try to protect the berries or regulate the commercial sale," Jensen said.

Jensen said the department would look to the legislature for guidance to watch over and protect the berries.

There are currently no other bills in the 2023 session that deal with huckleberries. Still, lawmakers like Morgigeau say the Legislature should do something to help protect the harvesting lands and regulate the commercial sale of huckleberries, so the ecosystem is intact for the Montana gem.

Caven Wade is a student reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation. He can be reached at