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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

SAN LUIS NWR: Multi-Agency Raid on Criminal Marijuana Grow at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Region 8, August 31, 2012
Air-Lift!  A load of marijuana plants is hauled out by helicopter at the San Luis NWR.  More than 5,100 plants were removed and destroyed during the August 31st operation.
Air-Lift! A load of marijuana plants is hauled out by helicopter at the San Luis NWR. More than 5,100 plants were removed and destroyed during the August 31st operation. - Photo Credit: n/a
California National Guard and U.S. Forest Service personnel are transported to the marijuana grow site via helicopter.
California National Guard and U.S. Forest Service personnel are transported to the marijuana grow site via helicopter. - Photo Credit: n/a
A California National Guardsman untangles the hauling net from a load of marijuana plants.
A California National Guardsman untangles the hauling net from a load of marijuana plants. - Photo Credit: n/a
One of several loads of trash hauled out of the grow site via helicopter.  Approximately 1,000 pounds of trash and other debris associated with the operation were removed.
One of several loads of trash hauled out of the grow site via helicopter. Approximately 1,000 pounds of trash and other debris associated with the operation were removed. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Jack Sparks, San Luis NWRC

On August 31, after two months of covert surveillance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) led a multi-agency effort to raid and eradicate a 5,100-plant marijuana grow worth an estimated $20.4 million on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in Merced County, Calif. Teams of law enforcement agents from the Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) entered the site in the pre-dawn hours to determine if suspects were present and place them in custody – one suspect was apprehended during the raid. Once secure, teams from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), and California National Guard Counter Drug Task Force (CNG-CDTF), entered and removed marijuana plants, trash, firearms, and other debris associated with the grow operation. Over 5,100 marijuana plants, measuring 3-6 feet high, were seized and destroyed. Approximately 1,000 pounds of trash and equipment were removed by law enforcement officials.

The law enforcement operation included extensive investigative work that began in early summer when personnel from the Merced County Sheriff’s Office, while flying an unrelated search and rescue mission, spotted the marijuana grow hidden deep within a heavily-wooded river zone on the San Luis NWR. The information was passed through channels and directed to the Service's Office of Refuge Law Enforcement, the lead office with law enforcement jurisdiction on the 26,800-acre San Luis NWR.

Over a seven week period, officers from the Service, California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), and National Guard set up surveillance that included nighttime stakeouts, as well as various types of specialized equipment. Teaming with a BLM agent, Service officers arranged for a CNG-CDTF airplane to fly a high altitude reconnaissance mission to take video footage of the marijuana grow. Detailed video from the flight revealed there were three marijuana gardens within proximity of each other and evidence of multiple access trails used by the growers. As surveillance operations progressed, officers became concerned that the suspects were aware of surveillance. A raid to close the activity was planned for the early morning of August 31.

The raid and eradication work involved a cooperative effort from federal and state agencies. The Office of Refuge Law Enforcement was the lead for planning the operation. Five refuge officers participated in the raid, including three zone officers for the Northern California, Nevada, and Central California zones and refuge officers from the San Luis NWR Complex and Stillwater NWR Complex. Additionally, three special agents from the Service's Office of Law Enforcement participated. These officers were assisted in the operation by a special multi-agency team called the Central Valley Marijuana Investigation Team (CVMIT), consisting of agents from the California Department of Justice and BLM. Wardens from the California DFG provided surveillance of the area prior to and during the raid – a critical component to its success.

Teams used the cover of darkness to quietly ferry officers and gear across a local slough in kayaks and tactically position themselves around the grow sites. At the site, agents were able to detect that it was occupied by suspects. Shortly after first light, a helicopter from the Cannabis Eradication and Reconnaissance Team (CERT) arrived and hovered over the marijuana gardens in an effort to discover and flush out suspects. Simultaneously, the ground officers that had been concealed at the site initiated the raid and announced their presence. One suspect was immediately apprehended and taken into custody; agents believe additional suspects were at the site and evaded capture.

At the grow operation, officers found three make-shift structures including a base camp, a satellite camp, and a drying structure. Portions of the marijuana had already been harvested and prepared for distribution. Two loaded firearms, including a high-power assault rifle, were found at the site – the suspect that was apprehended was carrying ammunition for a stolen firearm. A third firearm, a semi-automatic pistol, was taken by one of the suspects that fled.

Once the site was determined to be secure, the CERT team, which consisted of personnel from the USFS, DFG, and National Guard, was dropped in via helicopter long-line to begin eradicating the marijuana plants and removing the trash and debris associated with the grows. Within 3-4 hours, 5,116 marijuana plants were cut and hauled out and 1,000 pounds of trash was transported out using the long-line on the helicopter. With an estimated value of $4,000 per plant, the total street value of this criminal operation was $20.4 million. The marijuana plants were immediately destroyed.

This latest illegal marijuana grow is just one of many that has occurred on Central Valley National Wildlife Refuges. Dense wooded vegetation combined with the remoteness of these areas make refuges attractive sites for marijuana growers, many associated with major drug trafficking organizations and criminal gangs. The operations maliciously destroy pristine and precious areas that are mandated to be preserved and managed for wildlife.

The criminal growers not only brazenly destroy native vegetation to make way for their marijuana plants, they also dump large quantities of herbicides, fertilizers, and other harmful chemicals into the environment with devastating effects to plants and wildlife. Bait stations of poison are often used to intentionally kill wild animals in and around the illegal campsites. Equally as hazardous as the environmental impacts, the marijuana grows also inhibit  refuge visitors from safely using and enjoying these public lands for their intended uses.

Efforts such as the recent raid send a clear message that criminal drug activity and habitat destruction will not be tolerated on National Wildlife Refuges and will ultimately result in zero profit and negative consequences for those involved in these illegal operations.
 

Contact Info: Jack Sparks, 209-826-3508, jack_sparks@fws.gov