Illegal Pot Grows: Dangerous for Species, Agencies and Recreationalists

To let light in for the illegal crop, growers “girdle” trees, essentially strangling the tree, causing leaves and branches to die, while concealing the marijuana plants below. Credit: USFS, Region 5

CARLSBAD, Calif. (CN) – If while hiking in the pristine wilderness of a northern California wildlife refuge you run into a dump site, back out quickly and quietly and return to safety, as it may be more than a toxic hazard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service advises. You most likely stumbled onto an illegal pot grow and could be in imminent danger from armed guards posted by the criminal organizations that run these sites, the agency warns.

“Some of the illegal grow sites are encountered by members of the public that are recreating in remote areas – people like hikers, campers and hunters. However, most public land users are not aware of what is happening on our public lands,” Jane Hendron with the Carlsbad Fish and Wildlife Office told Courthouse News.

The agencies that oversee our public lands would also want you to report the location to the best of your ability using landmarks, or even GPS coordinates if possible, Hendron, added. In California, the problem is significant and agencies are struggling to address it.

“The problem of illegal grows is primarily an issue on public lands in California. National Forests face the biggest problem with these illegal grows, but they are also problems on National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks as well as state owned public lands and also tribal lands. Some privately owned lands can also be impacted. The extent of illegal grows in California far outpaces all other states,” Hendron, who wrote on the subject for USFWS June 7, explained. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, 1,893 outdoor grow sites were eradicated in California in 2015. No other state came close to that number of sites. The next highest, Kentucky, had 916 sites.

Out of the 45 million acres of public lands in California, it is estimated that several thousand acres are co-opted for illegal pot growing each year. Not only do these sites pose dangers for those who trek off the beaten path, but also for the agency staff tasked with cleaning up and restoring those sites. Less obvious perhaps is the damage done to the environment and the danger to species, some of them at-risk species like the Pacific fisher, that are impacted by toxic chemical use at the sites.

“There were more than 26,000 plants spread among six different patches along a mile of stream …To grow that many plants, they needed enough water to fill about 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And that’s just one site,” said Mark Higley, a biologist for the Hoopa Tribe, shown here with a juvenile Pacific fisher, whose habitat is threatened by chemicals used at illegal marijuana grow sites. Credit: Courtesy of the Hoopa Tribe

Mark Higley, a wildlife biologist who works with the Hoopa Tribe in Humboldt County, discovered one of the ways the growers use chemicals to keep wildlife from destroying the marijuana plants. “Growers strung hot dogs on fish hooks to attract and kill nearby animals. While I was there, I came across a dead Pacific fisher,” Higley said. Samples of the hooks tested positive for methomyl, an insecticide that is highly toxic to humans and wildlife.

Fishers have also been poisoned at these sites by rodenticides, highly toxic and persistent in the environment. Wildlife is not only poisoned by directly ingesting it, but also by eating prey that have ingested it.

“Just about any animal that ventures into an illegal grow site is at risk of death. Species that have been found dead at these sites include bears, snakes, deer, etc.  Owls may also be affected by eating rodents that have consumed toxic bait,” Hendron said.

Many of these chemicals also run off into streams, where the fish and aquatic species are poisoned.

“It’s nearly impossible to track impacts from these illegal sites to native fish populations,” Darren Mierau, North Coast director for CalTrout, said. “But we are currently at five to 10 percent of historic population levels, and this is another wound.”

Toxic runoff in the water is just one aspect of the problem challenging fragile aquatic systems. The water diversion to support thirsty pot plants is another significant impact.

“There were more than 26,000 plants spread among six different patches along a mile of stream that supports anadromous [salmon and steelhead] fish,” Higley said. “To grow that many plants, they needed enough water to fill about 27 Olympic-sized swimming pools! And that’s just one site.”

In addition to water impacts, trees are often girdled by cutting around the trunk, which strangles the tree, killing off the leaves and branches to let in light for the pot plants while maintaining overhead concealment.

Once the sites are discovered, either through direct contact with the site or through aerial surveillance, the agencies that oversee our public lands must go in and clean them up, risking exposure to hazardous materials and other dangers.

“Many of the sites are, in fact, set up by individuals associated with cartels. They are often armed and sometimes the sites can be booby trapped, which is why law enforcement personnel accompany staff to the sites for cleanup operations – even after an initial raid has occurred. Sometimes, the growers may try and go back to the site, so having law enforcement personnel is to ensure safety,” Hendron said.

Because these sites are remote, hauling out the mountains of debris, 1,400 pounds from one site alone earlier this year, is costly and difficult. Much of it has to be disposed of as hazardous waste or otherwise requires special handling.

“Once the plants are removed law enforcement destroys them. All the other equipment and trash associated with the illegal sites is disposed of. This is the costly and time consuming aspect. Some materials can be put in the trash, but chemicals and such must be handled and disposed of as hazardous waste which adds expense to the cost of cleanup. Also, some sites are so remote that helicopters are used to haul out the trash – that also adds to the cost of some cleanups,” Hendron explained. “The reality is there is not enough money, time, or staff to clean up every new illegal grow site that gets installed every year. As a result, more and more acres of land get impacted each year.”

In the current murky environment of conflicting federal and state regulations governing marijuana cultivation and use, it is challenging to predict what the effect on these large-scale illegal grows on public lands will be in response to increasing decriminalization.

The DEA claims that legalization may even be contributing to the problem. “The success of the Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program is directly attributed to the decision of the participating agencies to share intelligence, technology and manpower. In many areas of the U.S., cultivators have been forced to abandon large outdoor cannabis plots in favor of smaller, better concealed illicit gardens. Cultivators are also growing outdoor cannabis under the cover of various states legal cannabis grows,” according to the DEA’s website.

However, Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), said, “My understanding is that grows on federal lands are typically linked to Mexican drug trafficking enterprises. Some recent national articles indicate that Mexican cartel involvement in the US marijuana trade has declined significantly following marijuana legalization in US states. With California being the largest domestic cannabis producer in the US, according to DEA, one would presume that this involvement would fall even further post-regulation.”

Morgan Fox, Senior Communications Manager for the Marijuana Policy Project, echoed that sentiment. “Most of the illicit cultivation on public land that I’ve heard about has been happening in California, so it is hard to look to other states for examples. I do know that in Colorado, nearly a billion dollars in marijuana sales took place in the legal market last year… sales that would have taken place in the illicit market otherwise. Legalization may not be able to completely eliminate the illicit market, but it makes it much less profitable and more dangerous to operate clandestine grows on public land. I expect that these grows will decline heavily after implementation of the legal, regulated market in California. One doesn’t find clandestine vineyards in the public lands around Napa.”

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