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.
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.