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Pot gardens threaten wildlife
Fighting the growing plague of illegal marijuana gardens cultivated in wildlife areas of Northern California comes at a very high cost.
The funding required for law enforcement to eradicate these gardens is in the millions of dollars annually.
In 2011, the Tehama County Sheriff's Department took part in 55 illegal marijuana garden investigations on public and private properties.
According to the department, that number would be much higher except for the restrictions of resources and time.
Tehama County Sheriff Dave Hencratt said his department has been involved in five raids on illegal marijuana gardens so far this growing season, during which nine arrests were made and eight firearms seized.
The loss of safety to campers, hunters, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who happen upon an illegal pot garden also comes at a high price as these statistics show most of the gardens are manned by armed "gardeners."
"If a private citizen comes upon something suspicious, don't enter the area; just leave and notify local law enforcement authorities immediately," cautioned Julie Lombard, of US Forest Service Law Enforcement. "Do not enter any garden area."
A University of California, Davis study published on July 13 has declared an additional cost of these outlawed grows — the poisoning of forest wildlife.
The study reports rat poison is often used by illegal marijuana growers to kill a wide range of animals encroaching on their crops. These poison-laced animals are consumed by larger wildlife, such as martens, spotted owls, foxes, coyotes, hawks and eagles, which in turn are poisoned second-hand from the animals they eat.
But it is the threat to the Fisher — member of the weasel family, that has scientists and researchers most concerned.
"Rat poison used on illegal marijuana farms may be sickening and killing the fisher, a rare forest carnivore, that makes its home in some of the most remote areas of California," according to a team of researchers led by University of California, Davis, veterinary scientists.
Fishers in California, Oregon and Washington have been declared a candidate species for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.
"Our findings were very surprising since nontarget poisoning from these chemicals is typically seen in wildlife in urban or agricultural settings," said Mourad Gabriel, a UC Davis Veterinary Genetics Laboratory researcher and president of the Integral Ecology Research Center, in a press release. "In California, fishers inhabit mature forests within the national forest, national parks, private industrial and tribal community lands — nowhere near urban or agricultural areas."
The researchers describe a recent example in which more than 2,000 marijuana plants were removed by law enforcement officials less than 7.5 miles from one of the study areas. Large amounts of rodenticide were observed around the marijuana plants and along plastic irrigation lines.
"If fishers are at risk, other species are most likely at risk because they share the same prey and the same habitat," said Gabriel in the study. "Our next steps are to examine whether toxicants used at illegal marijuana grow sites on public lands are also indirectly impacting fisher populations and other forest carnivores through prey depletion."
It comes as no surprise the California Department of Fish and Game is one of the biggest components in fighting the illegal marijuana grows due to the enormous threat the gardens pose to the ecosystem on government and public lands.
Fish and Game wardens spend as much as 25 percent of their time annually to marijuana eradication, according to reports.
Along with animal poisons, the growers also use a large amount of fertilizers which spill into, and pollute natural streams and creeks, killing fish and amphibians.
The growers kill bears, deer and other wildlife that encroach on their camps and gardens, according to the U.S. Forest Service, another agency active in the fight against illegal marijuana gardens.
National forests in the North State have vast and mostly uninhabited lands with many areas of rich, fertile soil and a climate that provides the necessary conditions for growing marijuana. Plants are put into the ground between May and June and harvested in late September through November.
The majority of the illegal gardens are set up by Mexican drug cartels, said the sheriff's department.
Last year law enforcement made 39 arrests during raids on gardens, of which the vast majority of the suspects were Hispanic, Spanish speaking and in the country illegally. Seized during these raids were 19 firearms.
When a garden is raided, law enforcement pulls and destroys all of the marijuana plants. But that isn't the end of the story. Once the plants are pulled the job of cleaning and clearing the site ensues, and that includes removing all of the trash, poisons, fertilizers and cultivation equipment that has accumulated at the site, using up additional man hours, funds and other resources.