Investigators are all too familiar with the Sacramento County wildlife refuge where a man suspected of illegally growing marijuana was shot dead early Wednesday.
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The Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is a popular place for illegal grow operations, officials said, and one of several in the Sacramento area that keeps law enforcement officers coming back almost every year to confront growers and uproot harmful pot plants and toxic chemicals from protected land.
Farmers who grow illegally on public land are usually armed and dangerous, state Department of Justice spokeswoman Michelle Gregory said. Last time law enforcement raided a grow operation in the rural nature preserve near Hood-Franklin Road, it was 2013. Then they found two men carrying shotguns. Both were arrested.
On Wednesday, the man had a handgun.
Officers from multiple agencies arrived at the grow site just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, about 5:45 a.m., a few weeks after marijuana plants were seen from the air by planes that patrol the area. The man was alone on the marijuana site when officers arrived, approaching the grounds from several angles.
When the man was told to surrender his handgun, officials said, he refused. Gregory said he pointed the weapon at a game warden, who then opened fire. It was not immediately clear how many times the man was shot.
First aid was rendered immediately and a helicopter ambulance was called, law enforcement said, but the man died.
“I do know that he presented a threat to the officer’s life,” Fish and Wildlife spokesman Capt. Patrick Foy said. “This officer is very experienced and has been in dangerous situations before. He is one of our more experienced officers related to marijuana cultivation and raids.”
Game wardens are peace officers who are issued four service weapons: pistols, a rifle and a shotgun.
Law enforcement officers from multiple agencies were expected to work until the sun set Wednesday, clearing out and reclaiming land that had been turned into what Gregory described as a “pretty significant” marijuana operation.
About 3:30 p.m., a helicopter was called in to help carry out plants and materials, including fertilizer, rat poison and pesticides used to protect the pot plants.
Illegal pot growing on public land is believed to have started in national forests during the 1960s. Since then, it’s become a pervasive national problem.
From 2005 to 2010, law enforcement eradicated 3,900 illegal grow sites on national forest land, according to numbers the U.S. Department of Agriculture presented to the U.S. Senate in 2011. In California, such operations are found in every county in the state.
Typically, growers will stake out a parcel of public land, spread rodenticide liberally around their chosen sites to keep rats and other animals away from the marijuana plants, and dam creeks or streams to irrigate their pot patches.
The Stone Lakes refuge, a 6,550-acre refuge established in 1994 to protect habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, offers ideal conditions for such operations – there’s plenty of sun, a nearby water source and sparse foot traffic, Foy said – which may explain why illegal operations keep cropping up.
Biologists who work in wildlife preserves known for their proclivity for illegal pot growth, like Stone Lakes, said they’re often wary walking around, fearful that they may bump into an armed grower ready to defend the crop.
“It’s definitely something they have in the back of their minds,” said Devin Blankenship of Ducks Unlimited. “They try to keep a lookout for things that are out of the ordinary. (A Ducks Unlimited biologist) told me that there are definite times when he sees people coming off trails and he’s not sure if it’s a bird watcher or if there’s something else, something worse going on.”
Gregory said the most recent raids at Stone Lakes were in 2012 and 2013.
In June 2013, four men were arrested and $2 million in marijuana seized in a raid. That included more than 7,000 marijuana plants and 100 pounds of marijuana. Two 12-gauge shotguns and a handgun also were taken.
“We have had them here and at the Cosumnes River Preserve, just across the freeway,” said Foy. “It is a problem we have been trying to stay on top of. They come back the very next year.”
In October, Foy said, he was part of a raid elsewhere and growers didn’t wait that long. The day after the raid, Foy said, about 50 law enforcement officers returning to the area to assist in reclamation happened upon a group of returning growers.
Part of the reason growers will return to the same sites over and over again, Foy said, is they put up as much as $20,000 in some cases to get an illegal grow site started. If law enforcement doesn’t clear the area properly, infrastructure may remain that will ease the transition to another illegal pot patch.
Officers, aided by the National Guard, have gotten better at clearing the land and fully removing all infrastructure that might make a plot appealing, Foy said.
These illegal grows not only pose a threat to visitors, but fertilizers, pesticides and rat poisons pose a threat to nature as well.
The environmental damage done by illegal marijuana operations affects animals and vegetation alike, and, some researchers believe, can be felt for generations.
A 2013 study by scientists at UC Davis, UC Berkeley and two other entities, found that rat poison threatens whatever species shares habitat with grow sites, but no animal in California is more threatened than the fisher, a cat-sized cousin of the weasel who lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills.
“They use them (chemicals) in such massive quantities, and with such disregard to the environment, that they contaminate swaths of sensitive property,” said Foy. “That is why we get involved.”
Schoolchildren from the Elk Grove Unified School District frequent the Stone Lakes preserve on field trips, though spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton said they’re always supervised and escorted through the area.
Call The Bee’s Marissa Lang, (916) 321-1038. Follow her on Twitter at @Marissa_Jae.