Wildlife Biologists: Illegal Pot Farms Wreaking Havoc on Endangered Species

By Alissa Tabirian | July 31, 2013 | 2:30 PM EDT

Biologist Mourad Gabriel surveys damage from illegal pot farm.  (Integral Ecology Research Center/UC Davis)

(CNSNews.com) -- Illegal marijuana cultivation on public and tribal land has been identified as the culprit in the deaths of at-risk wildlife and environmental degradation throughout California, Oregon and Washington, according to researchers who have been investigating and documenting hundreds of marijuana “grow sites” since 2005.

The project, a collaboration between wildlife biologists at the University of California - Davis, the U.S. Forest Service, the Hoopa Valley Tribe, and other organizations, began with an examination into the causes of mortality in threatened fisher populations.

Researcher Mourad Gabriel documented “multiple contamination sites from marijuana cultivation, specifically the mass abuse of anticoagulant rodenticide as well as other toxicants at these sites.”

“It’s a novel threat,” Gabriel, president and co-founder of Integral Ecology Research Center and a researcher at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told CNSNews.com, adding that “there’s a lack of data” regarding the environmental impact of illegal pot farms.

Gabriel hopes that his team’s research will garner greater awareness among the public and policymakers “on the misconceptions that marijuana cultivation has little to no environmental impact . . . We’re seeing a strong negative effect of marijuana cultivation on our public and tribal lands.”

California’s biodiversity makes it home to a wide variety of endangered and threatened species, including salmon, spotted owls, great gray owls, and Sierra-Nevada red foxes. Much of Gabriel’s work is focused on the fisher, an animal in the weasel family that is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

“All of these species inhabit either previously or potentially occupied marijuana cultivation sites,” Gabriel pointed out, and “are either potentially at risk or currently at risk” due to contact with the rodenticide used to protect marijuana plants.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded a $200,000 grant to the Hoopa Valley Tribe in northwestern California to research activities affecting tribal lands, which are “inundated with trespass grows” by drug trafficking groups “that are coming in [and] clearing their land to grow and cultivate marijuana,” according to Gabriel. “This is a vested interest of theirs, to protect their sovereign land.”

Teams of volunteer have cleaned up and reclaimed 637 cultivation sites on public lands so far, according to Gabriel. These sites, found in only two out of 17 national forests in California, are “just a fraction of the grow sites that are currently present.”

The Humboldt County Sherriff’s Office used Google Earth technology to document 4,100 greenhouses that were cultivating marijuana plants on private land in the county in 2012, but only had sufficient resources to eradicate less than 2 percent of the grow sites due to limited funding. “If we were to have our drug task force go ahead and investigate two to three sites every day, it would take them multiple years just to hit every one of those 4,100 grow sites,” Gabriel explained.

According to a 2010 report, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that “law enforcement around the world only seizes 10-20 percent of the drugs produced.”

Mark Higley, wildlife biologist for the Hoopa Valley Tribe, noted an additional 215 grow sites that are “quasi-legal” because they are “growing openly with medical marijuana recommendations.”

“It often feels like we are running around like Chicken Little saying, ‘The sky is falling,’” Higley said. However, “it is clear that the problem is real, widespread and possibly getting worse.”

Although many of the toxicants found on grow sites, including organochlorides such as DDT, are banned in North America, “it seems that no regulation is stemming these folks [drug traffickers] from either utilizing or not utilizing these toxicants correctly.”

Higley, who has lived in Humboldt County for over 30 years, noted that “marijuana has been a centerpiece of this region since well before that time. It has been identified as the base of the local economy in recent years and [California state] laws regarding marijuana are vague and open to abuses.”

“I cannot understand why the majority of environmental groups have not taken up this cause, nor have they even shown the slightest bit of concern for the most part,” he added.

California, Oregon and Washington have some of the most lax marijuana laws in the naion, including medical marijuana programs, decriminalization for possession of small amounts of the drug, and even legalization of pot in Washington. Gabriel noted that a beneficial political decision “may take multiple years, but we cannot wait multiple years for the continued degradation of the environment that’s occurring right now.”

“Seems like a perfect storm for California where climatic conditions and long term attitudes towards the plant are both favorable,” Higley agreed, referring to the consequences of a “completely unregulated” industry and the emergence of a marijuana black market.

“I believe we are at a crossroads regarding this issue,” said Humboldt County Sheriff Michael Downey. He also noted that California’s Proposition 215, the medical marijuana law known as the Compassionate Use Act, “is being used to the commercial growers’ advantage.”

“Legalization has its own set of problems,” Downey said. “The federal government is not equipped to regulate the marijuana trade at this time and there will be plenty of growers that will not wish to conform to guidelines.”

He expressed frustration toward “a population that wants the marijuana” without “any real regard for how it gets from production to consumption…. It no longer has to do with marijuana and the good or bad aspects of its use. The issue now is the crime involved, the environmental impacts and non-regulation on any level,” he said.

In coming years, researchers hope “to make sure that the soil has been cleaned up, the habitat is restoring itself, and the wildlife is slowly but hopefully coming back,” said Gabriel. “I think many folks within this great nation are not aware of what is actually occurring on our public lands, and these are their public lands.”

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