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Illegal Marijuana Farms Poach, Poison Wildlife

Marijuana growing among the vegetation in the Coconino National Forest north of Strawberry, Ariz.
AP Photo/Arizona U.S. Attorney's office

Marijuana growing among the vegetation in the Coconino National Forest north of Strawberry, Ariz.

Illegal marijuana grow sites are problematic for obvious reasons — for one, they’re against the law.

But they also pose a major threat to wildlife and the environment.

Drug traffickers poach and poison animals to keep them from grazing on crops. In some cases, the animals are endangered species.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that illegal grow operations exist in 72 national forests in 22 states.

Nevada is one of those states. 

Benjamin Spillman is a writer for the Reno Gazette-Journal, focusing on outdoor and environmental issues. He recently wrote an article about the problem in California and Nevada.

“People are generally aware that people grow marijuana in forests and remote places," he said. "I don’t know if they are entirely aware of what sorts of things are used to grow that marijuana.”

Spillman said besides using fertilizer to grow the plants, the people who watch over the grow operations use rat poison to keep animals away from the crops and away from their campsites.

Researchers are just starting to look into the impact the operations are having on the environment, but they've noted a rise in the number of animals found dead with rat poison in their systems.

The animals affected include spotted owls, upland game birds, deer and fishers, which are small, weasel-like mammals. Scavengers can also become ill or die after eating carcasses tainted by poison.

Spillman said most of the marijuana growing operations are in Northern California, but some are in Nevada, including near Tonopah, in White Pine County and in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area near Las Vegas.

He said it can take several days to clean up a grow operation not only because of the number of plants they have to clear out, but also because of the amount of trash produced by people tasked with watching over the site. 

One recent cleanup near Burley, Calif., was 60 acres and included 18 miles of pipe, 11,360 pounds of trash, 1250 pounds of fertilizer and other toxic chemicals.

While cleaning up a marijuana operation can take days, Spillman says there is not much anyone can do to stop them from being set up in the first place.

“There is really not a lot they can do on the front end other than hope that people report when they see weird things out in the forest,” he said.

With recreational marijuana becoming legalized in Nevada and California starting in January, there is a chance that these operations will decrease, but Spillman said that remains to be seen.

He said the growing operations are run by sophisticated drug traffickers, and they'll still try to make money in other states where marijuana is not legal. 






Benjamin Spillman, outdoors and environmental writer, Reno Gazette-Journal

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.