The first thing that may come to mind when you think about enforcing our nation’s so-called “War on Drugs” are police SWAT teams or heavily armed DEA agents.
Some our most embattled, and most effective, drug enforcement warriors wear the uniform of game wardens—the men and women who most Americans, mistakenly, assume spend their time checking fishing and hunting licenses and monitoring trespassers.
Not only are game wardens overlooked in accounts of the drug war; they are seriously in need of resources to tackle a problem that is likely to increase in the years ahead: large-scale clandestine marijuana growing operations.
In California, for instance, adults over the age of 21 can legally use, possess and share marijuana—and grow up to six plants at home. Recreational sales will become legal in 2018.
That may accordingly reduce concerns about the currently illegal marijuana “grows” in abandoned buildings and basements. But the land area devoted to marijuana growing in our regional, state and federal forests, parks and wildlife refuges—where many criminal cartels now operate—is certain to increase.
“We estimate less than half of the California trespass grow sites in operation each year are detected and eliminated,” said Lt. John Nores, Jr., who heads the California Fish and Wildlife Department’s three-year-old tactical unit, called the Marijuana Enforcement Team (MET).
According to the Fish and Wildlife department, at least 3,000 to 5,000 organized crime-operated “trespass grows” are identified each year on California’s wildlands. Many of these sites are typically in excess of 1,000 plants per site, sometimes consisting of more than 200,000 plants.
The fact that an armed tactical unit is needed for our national parks and refuges may seem surprising. But taking down illegal marijuana grow sites in a remote area is dangerous work.
Each “grow” is manned by several growers. Most are armed and more than willing to defend their cash crop. Between 2005 and 2015, the state’s game wardens have been involved in at least six gunfights with armed growers—and things are not likely to get safer. Game wardens are effectively at war with the international drug cartels which are growing toxically tainted marijuana being sold all over the US.
California’s MET unit began to form in 2013, but did not become fully operational until 2014. (Previously the wardens worked in an interagency team with other federal and state law enforcement agencies.) So far, it’s only the third such unit in the country. Just two other states (Texas and Florida) have specialized game-warden tactical units.
MET includes a sniper unit (Delta team), developed to support marijuana enforcement operations, homeland security and other public safety missions throughout California, has deployed throughout the state’s wildlands and urban centers for public safety and environmental crime-suppression operations.
MET has produced results. Since July 1, 2013 the unit has completed 583 missions. That included:
- eradicating 2.1 million poisoned marijuana plants;
- arresting 745 armed felons;
- confiscating 433 illegal firearms;
- removing 335 tons of grower waste;
- removing 41 tons of fertilizers, toxic poisons and pesticides (like EPA banned pesticides Furdan and Metaphos), as well as 311 miles of black plastic irrigation pipe; and
- removing 614 illegal dams that consumed approximately 756 million of gallons of California water during the state’s peak drought.
The danger in these grow sites is high. Not only are many of the growers heavily armed, but the sites are frequently booby trapped. Some of those encountered by warden include punji pits (underground beds of sharpened and poisoned sticks camouflaged on the trail to severely injure those that walk into the grow site).
MET has also become a little-known component of efforts to curb criminal activity by illegal residents.
“Approximately 85 percent of the trespass growers apprehended by the MET are here illegally,” said Nores.
The felonies they are typically charged with include: marijuana cultivation for sale, using firearms in the commission of a felony, assault on law enforcement officers, and using banned and highly toxic poisons illegally on private and public land.
Cartel growers can also be charged with felony water stealing from the Water Code. Other misdemeanors that are often charged include illegal stream alteration, water pollution, littering near state waterways, and the illegal take of numerous wildlife species.
“As a result of the numerous felony and environmental misdemeanor charges, we are seeing an average of 2-year prison sentences for trespass growers caught and prosecuted. Since most are illegal, they are deported following their prison or jail sentences,” said Nores.
Essential to the success and safety of MET is Phebe, their four-footed K9 assistant. She is one of the unsung heroines of California’s drug war in the wildlands. A Belgian Malinois Phebe has saved the lives of the two-legged members of MET numerous times on dangerous missions, as well as those of other agencies who have partnered with the game warden tactical unit during fugitive-tracking and evidence-detection missions.
Most K9’s retire at around 8 years old. But Phebe is still highly effective at 11. MET officer and K9 handler Brian Boyd, who has worked with K-9 Phebe for the last nine years, reports that she has made 114 physical apprehensions on violent trespass-grow suspects over her career. She has also caught another 740 suspects where a physical apprehension was not required.
Along with its mission to stop the public safety threat from organized crime cultivation operations, MET is also dedicated to rectifying the extensive environmental destruction to California’s wildlife resources within these grow sites, through cleanup and reclamation missions.
Pursuit of the drug war is in fact a crucial activity in wildlands across the country.
Other states with significant cartel gardens on national forests, national and state parks, Bureau of Land Management lands and federal Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife refuges include: Colorado, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin and Kentucky—especially in the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Grow sites are typically in excess of 1,000 plants per site, sometimes consisting of more than 200,000 plants. Cartel marijuana grows have been found in national parks, wildlife refuges, BLM lands and state and local parks in 23 states and on 72 national forests.
Almost four million plants are removed from illegal grows on public lands nation-wide every year, less than 20% of what’s actually out there. The Forest Service reports that in 2012 nearly 83% of the 1,048,768 plants eradicated from national forests were eradicated in California.
California’s METS unit and similar efforts have so far been effective brakes on the new threats to our wilderness areas, but California still has the lowest wardens per capita in the US and, nation-wide, the numbers of federal and state game wardens have been declining in recent years as crime in wildlands has increased.
Editor’ Note: Unless you’re a combat veteran, it’s difficult to get a sense of what it’s like to be part of the MET. That has changed with the recent release of a 24-minute documentary WAR IN THE WOODS: Raid to Reclamation by producer Rick Stewart of American Zealot Productions.
James A. Swan, Ph.D., is a Co-Executive Producer of the “Wild Justice” TV series and co-author with Lt. John Nores Jr. of “War In The Woods: Combating the Marijuana Cartels on America’s Wildlands.” Read his earlier op /ed for The Crime Report: “The Thin Green Line Could Use Some Help.” He welcomes comments from readers.