It’s being dubbed the “green rush,” a movement in California to get one green from another: cash from marijuana.
With half a million marijuana plants recovered on U.S. Forest Service land in California so far this year, illegal pot grow sites at national parks have begun to take a toll on the surrounding wildlife and environment the public pays to protect.
The issue goes beyond the politics of pot. It doesn’t matter what they’re growing -- it could be strawberries or corn -- it’s how they’re growing it that’s killing wildlife, tainting water supplies and endangering hikers at national parks.
Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon, just east of Fresno, have become the new ground zero for marijuana growing on public land.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit rode along with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department’s Marijuana Eradication Task Force last month on a bust of a grow site just yards from Kings Canyon, where they discovered shotguns, 280 marijuana plants and large containers of poison used to protect the crops.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Lt. Rick Ko, who heads up the task force. “It’s almost an epidemic.”
So far this year, the task force has identified more than 500 grow sites on or near the national parks and seized about 2,400 plants, which is more than double the total for all of last year.
“They are harming the environment,” Ko said.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter last week to the EPA condemning the illegal pot growers and asking the agency to assist Fresno County in particular with identifying environmental crimes. To view the letter, click here.
And those environmental crimes are having deadly effects on nearly-endangered species, like the Pacific Fisher.
Scientists at the California Animal Health and Food Safety Lab at UC Davis have made a life’s work of tracking the six-to-eight pound weasel-like mammal as it inches toward extinction. There are only 300 left in California.
“These are rare and elusive animals,” said Mourad Gabriel, a scientist at UC Davis. Gabriel has micro-chipped and tracked fishers, studying the causes of mortality since 2007 in order to determine if the species should be on the endangered species list.
Gabriel’s most recent research has found 86 percent of Fishers he’s studying on and around Yosemite National Park, Sierra National Forest, and the Hoopa Valley Reservation near Eureka have been exposed to a poison called second generation anticoagulant rodenticide (SGAR) in their habitats. Toxicology reports show six have died from consuming it.
The only possible location of the poison is in the animals’ habitats: on illegal marijuana grow sites on tribal and public lands, like national parks.
All the deaths occurred between April and June, which is prime time for marijuana planting in California, when growers are concerned with protecting younger plants from animals.
“What we know is there is a massive use of toxicants out there,” Gabriel said.
The SGAR pesticides are so acutely poisonous, according to Gabriel, that a quarter teaspoon can kill a 500 pound lion. He’s seen pot farmers use up to 50 times that amount on a single plant to keep animals away from their crops.
“These have been specifically banned for a wide array of reasons, but one of them is the malicious poisoning that we’re seeing out there for our wildlife,” Gabriel said.
According to the State Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), it is illegal to use SGARs on agriculture. Their permissible uses are on and around buildings and by extermination companies, yet they are still readily available in stores and being used prevalently by marijuana growers.
“It’s a direct poisoning with a restricted-use chemical,” Gabriel said. “It’s an illegal use of this toxicant and it’s not a logical use.”
The Department of Pesticide Regulation defines SGAR as more potent than first generation: It only takes one dose to kill an animal. They also last longer than first generation rodenticides, meaning an SGAR can live in an animal’s body for up to a year, as opposed to two days of a first generation.
And if a predator preys on an infected animal, the poison can affect that species as well.
DPR is currently considering making SGAR California Restricted Materials, meaning they would only be available to certified applicators.
“If we’re finding it in the Fisher, we can extrapolate to so many different species,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel calls the fisher the “species of light” because he believes the fishers’ deaths will shed light on a bigger issue: the fatal effects of SGARs on wildlife.
Gabriel has found at least two endangered spotted owls have been exposed to the toxicants and scientists fear the Sierra Nevada red fox and Humboldt marten are also at risk, since they share the same environment.
The Investigative Unit traveled to Gabriel’s Humboldt lab where in the nearby Sierra Forest and on the Hoopa Valley Reservation he and biologist Mark Higley set up cameras to track the fishers.
To see more video of the fishers view click here.
The Unit hiked into one of those recently abandoned marijuana grow sites to see piles of trash and containers of pesticide left after growers finished the season’s crop, in the middle of the fishers’ habitat and close to the water supply.
“It’s basically flowing with the water and then it’s picked up by those species that can use it most readily,” Higley told NBC Bay Area on the hike.
Higley says the poisons, trash and fertilizer can travel in the water that is used by hikers and locals.
This study shows how these chemicals and algae in the water that can be toxic to animals and humans.
“I don't want to drink out of the creek now and come home and not wake back up,” said Dawn Blake, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe who lives on the reservation.
Blake believes it’s only a matter of time before toxicants in the water could make those in her community sick.
“They are specifically targeting animals and anything that can kill a bear is going to kill me as well,” Blake said. “Marijuana operations are destroying the landscape.”
Last year the state group called the Joint Task Force Domestic Support Counterdrug spent $23 million hunting down and seizing marijuana plants on public land in California as well, but little public funding is set aside for clean-up of the trash and poison left behind.
“They are killing the animals and killing the forest and they don’t care,” said Rick Fleming, a hiker who heads up the volunteer group the High Sierra Trail Crew to clean up the grow sites. “And you know that’s the reason we volunteer.”
Fleming believes the state should give more funding to the cleanup, not just the seizing of the plants, because that’s what’s impacting the environment.
Fleming says the biggest challenge is getting to the sites.
“They don't want to be detected, so you have to hike in miles or be brought in by helicopter in order to get there,” Fleming said. “Then you have to bag everything up.”
The former leader of the High Sierra Trail Crew, Shane Krogen, was killed in September after falling out of a helicopter when trying to clean up a site.
“I don’t believe they have the right to go out there and trash my forest,” Fleming said with emotion in reference to his friend’s death. “The national forests and the national parks are our legacy and they are being trashed.”
That legacy of resources and wildlife protected in our national parks is being harmed by illegal growers.
“The rest of our nation is not fully aware of what’s happening here in California, and it just doesn’t affect our state,” Gabriel told NBC Bay Area. “These are our national treasures, these are our national forests.”
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