Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: Illegal Marijuana Farms On Public Land
California-Nevada Offices , October 1, 2014
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Dense forest on the Hoopa Tribe Reservation hides an illegal marijuana farm.
Dense forest on the Hoopa Tribe Reservation hides an illegal marijuana farm. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS
Mark Higley, wildlife biologist for the Hoopa Tribal Forestry Department, surveys the trash left behind by growers.
Mark Higley, wildlife biologist for the Hoopa Tribal Forestry Department, surveys the trash left behind by growers. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff remove tubes from a spring that was used to water illegal marijuana plants.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff remove tubes from a spring that was used to water illegal marijuana plants. - Photo Credit: Cindy Sandoval/USFWS

By Cindy Sandoval

“Leave everything in the car that could be traced back to you if you drop it.” These are not the first words a biologist usually hears at the start of a hike, but this is the first piece of advice given to the group of three by Mark Higley, wildlife biologist for the Hoopa Tribal Forestry Department. On this day Higley will be leading two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees and Mourad Gabriel, a wildlife ecologist, into a remote area on the Hoopa Tribe Reservation to see firsthand the devastating effects of illegal marijuana farms.

Remote areas like the Hoopa Tribal Reservation and public lands like National Parks and National Wildlife Refuges are being targeted by illegal marijuana growers. These areas provide the space and privacy needed to cultivate hundreds or even thousands of plants during the spring and summer months. These sites pose numerous problems for the public as well as federal, state and tribal agencies. The first being the danger one faces if you stumble into an illegal grow sites.

The growers actually live in these isolated locations during the growing season and unsuspecting hikers and hunters can quickly find themselves in a dangerous situation. Gabriel explains there is a possibility for those going off trail to run into an illegal grower, “the safety threats are running into an armed grower and there is also the risk that you run into unmarked bottles or toxicant latent substances that could easily kill somebody.” He added that anyone encountering a grow site should take note of where they are, make a 180 degree turn and hike back out along the same route as quietly as possible to your vehicle. Then report the site to local law enforcement.

Along with the human risk, wildlife is also threated by these sites. The growers use poisons, known as rodenticides, to keep rodents from eating the sprouting marijuana plants, water tubes and the grower’s food stash. These rodenticides work by causing internal bleeding or neurological damage to animals that ingest the poison. Often these rodenticides are flavored to smell and taste like meat, fish and peanut butter. These flavors will attract other animals along with the targeted rodents in the area, resulting in the deaths of animals like skunks and bears.

Forest animals like owls and fishers can also come into contact with the rodenticide if they consume debilitated prey species. According to Gabriel, these poisoned rodent species can survive from three to seven days after exposer, allowing them to be eaten by other animals. The predator animals may not dead right away, but instead their body begins to fill with the toxins as they feed on rodents and without medical treatment the animals succumb to the poison and die.

Even after the growers abandon a site, either because the growing season is over or because the site has been discovered, the area is still dangerous. Everything that was hiked into these remote sites is left behind including trash, sleeping bags, propane tanks and unused poisons. This means that even though the site is no longer active, the poisons left behind are still attracting and killing wildlife. On the day of hiking with Higley, the group found many jugs and packages of poison littering the ground. When these sites are discovered by law enforcement or wildlife officials they are difficult to clean because of the chemical hazards present and the difficulty getting in and out of most areas. Often the clean ups require a helicopter to fly out the heavy items such as trash bags and water tubing.

Some sites contain hundreds of yards of water tube because the growers tap into stream and springs to water their plants. “One plant takes about six to eight gallons of water per day to thrive,” explained Gabriel adding that if the six to eight gallons a day is multiplied over a 150 day growing period, “that totals to 1,200 gallons of water per growing season for one plant.” In 2012 in California alone, nearly 870,000 illegal marijuana plants were found and destroyed on public and tribal lands. With the number of plants found and the estimate of water use per plant per day, illegal growers removed millions of gallons of water from springs, streams and riparian areas to grow their plants.

These illegal grow sites are dangerous on many levels and law enforcement, wildlife officials, tribal employees and citizens are worried about the effects on ecosystems and water supplies in the state. The group that accompanied Higley into the illegal site, which has not been used for over a year, found one wood rat dead from possible exposure to rodenticides, showing that even a year later these sites are having an impact on animals. Service staff will contain to document cases of rodenticide poisoning and monitor the populations of wildlife that are threatened by illegal marijuana grow sites. Be careful while out enjoying public lands and remember to never touch chemical bottles or packages while out in the wild. Contact law enforcement if you find an illegal grow site.

Cindy Sandoval is a public affairs specialist at the Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Sacramento.

Contact Info: Cynthia Sandoval, 916-978-6159, cynthia_d_sandoval@fws.gov
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