LABELLE, FL. -- Saw palmetto berries are critical to the survival of many native wildlife species, but none more so than the threatened Florida black bear. But before the bears and other wildlife can take full advantage of the fall crop, some people, seeking easy profit, illegally harvest the berries from wildlife management areas and private property. Unaware of the berries' source, drug companies pay high prices for the berries, which they use in making medicines.
While some state agencies issue permits for picking saw palmetto berries on lands they manage, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission generally forbids the practice on its lands, because of the critical relationship of berries to wildlife. Chassahowitzka WMA, in Hernando County, has been hit particularly hard by berry poachers this year, which concerns Chassahowitzka manager Chad Allison.
"Trespassing berry poachers are proving to be a detriment to bears and occasionally gopher tortoises," Allison said. "They are also an annoying distraction for hunters. Poachers cut down fences and leave behind litter. We also have found gopher tortoises hidden in the bottom of bags full of ill-gotten berries."
FWC canine officer Joe Wolff and officers Damon Pulaski and Luke Davenport are among those who have ratcheted up their patrols on Chassahowitzka WMA to stem the increasing tide of illegal activity related to palmetto berry picking.
On Oct. 4, Pulaski received information that a pickup truck had entered Chassahowitzka WMA and was attempting to exit without properly checking in or out and not paying the required daily-use fees. Pulaski called Davenport, Wolff and the Hernando County Sheriff's Office to assist. FWC officers and deputies stopped the suspect vehicle on Indigo Road before it left the WMA. In the vehicle were six men, along with 5,000 pounds of illegally picked palmetto berries in the truck bed.
The six men, all from Immokalee, were arrested and booked into the Hernando County Jail for illegal entry into the WMA and possession of palmetto berries. Each charge is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $500 and/or 60 days in jail.
- Jose Santos Lopez (DOB 04/04/84);
- Arturo Velazquez Barcenas (DOB 09/20/61);
- Pedro Aguilar Bodinez (DOB 10/12/77);
- Jose L. Ayala-Mejia (DOB 03/30/70);
- Rolando Domingo Aguilar (DOB 05/10/92); and
- Melvin Alvarado Nazar (DOB 01/28/72).
Another arrest occurred on Sept. 30, when Pulaski received a Wildlife Alert Hotline tip about four men who had entered Chassahowitzka WMA illegally. Pulaski searched and found a 200-pound sack of palmetto berries and a bucket, but no sign of the berry pickers who had illegally entered. Wolff and Davenport joined in the search, and with the expert help of canine Mojo, tracked down Sarvelio Perez (DOB 01/20/87), address unknown. Perez was arrested and booked into the Hernando County Jail, charged with illegal entry into Chassahowitzka WMA and possession of saw palmetto berries.
The Wildlife Alert Hotline, 888-404-3922, is a 24-hour, toll-free number that residents can call to report illegal fish and wildlife activities. Complainants can remain anonymous and be eligible for a reward. For more information on the Wildlife Alert Program, visit MyFWC.com/Violation or call the nearest FWC regional office.