BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - The Now Bakersfield obtained clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice to follow the U.S. Forest Service in Kern County into the Sequoia National Forest.
Our crews began investigating the impact that illegal marijuana grows were having on forest land and the wildlife in early June, to gain better insight of how the operations take place and what’s being done to stop it.
Recreational marijuana became legal in California in January 2018, but a special agent with the U.S. Forest Service said legalization has not slowed down the drug cartels from setting up in the Sequoia National Forest. "I can pin point the year 2000 is when it exploded in Kern County. I know that because I was here we had you know scattered grow here and there and all of sudden 2,000 bam, 100,000 plants 40 grows all over and it was still the Montgana family," An undercover U.S. Forest Service Special Agent said.
According to the U.S. Forest Service the Montgana family cartel is well known for having a prominent presence in the Sequoia during the 2000's. However, The U.S. Forest Service and its special agents said that they helped eradicate their grow operations.
The state of Michoacan in Mexico is where the majority of the marijuana workers and bosses come from according to the U.S. Forest Service, "Between 95 and 100 percent of the marijuana grows that we have on Sequoia National Forest are all tied by some way or another to cartels out of Mexico."
Over the years the dominant cartels have divided up the mountains and started charging new cartels who want in on the operations
U.S. Forest Service official said, "Some of the grows are found by aircraft you know helicopters and every now and then we will have a hiker, fisherman or hunter that will see a suspicious vehicle or a person where they shouldn't be or come across a water line they report it to us."
Growers are usually armed at the grow sites where they camp out for many months at a time, so the U.S. Forest Service and Wildlife Biologist Steve Anderson took us to a former grow site near Hobo Camp Ground, a couples miles off of Kern Canyon Road. These areas included harmful pesticides that impact the wildlife along with irrigation lines that are run from the nearby springs and streams.
One of the common pesticides used by growers is Furadan, it’s one of the most toxic carbamate pesticides used and it's also banned in the U.S. According to the U.S Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Steve Anderson, hundreds of animals die each year from these grow sites, "We found dead fisher in the grow sites, dead bear for sure foaming at the mouth."
The fisher, which is similar to a small weasel, is one of the wildlife animals seeing a strong impact from the grow sites. According to Anderson, less than 500 exist in the southern sierras, two have turned up dead from pesticide ingestion and data shows about 400 of the nearly 500 fisher that exist have been exposed to the pesticides. He said fisher are also a necessary native predator to the Sequoia and they help replenish the soil.
U.S. Forest Service officials said thousands of dollars are spent cleaning up these sites and over 85% of the drainage in the area are polluted by marijuana grows.
In this case 150 yards from the grow site, behind plenty of poison oak Now reporters and the U.S. Forest Service found a camp site where water sources were also contaminated by fertilizers left behind by growers. Officials said the site was overall mildly polluted compared to the others they have found but that they will still continue their fight against the growers.
"Wildlife are important it's something that gives us a thrill when we come out here, There's so many things that we don't understand about nature, it's important to keep everything that we can," Wildlife Biologist Steve Anderson said.
Even though the U.S Forest Service is finding less grows in the mountains compared to the early 2000's, they are now finding that people are moving from the mountains into the farmlands.
Officials said that the average cleanup cost for one of these sites can range anywhere from five to ten thousand dollars. The Sequoia National Forest also leads the nation in the number of marijuana plants eradicated on national forest land.
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