WI: Wardens' Skills Critical in Halt of $1 million Illegal Drug Grow
Eight Wisconsin conservation wardens stood in armed silence on high alert in strategic locations off a back road in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Ashland County just before dawn under clear, cool skies on August 10.
The operation to wipe out an illegal marijuana plantation allegedly run by five Mexican nationals and one Minnesota man, and halt the grow’s environmental damage threatening fish, wildlife, native vegetation and the watershed on these parcels of the lush public forest was about to launch.
But to take back this public land for safe outdoor fun, the wardens also had to stand ready to apprehend the culprits who were protecting this illegal drug investment before their final harvest and escape from this landscape nightmare.
This is exactly why the Wisconsin wardens were called to join this case with federal, state, tribal and county forces on the federal land. Wardens can work a forest. And this grow, an uninhabited area far from roads, was all about what wardens do.
If you have a dicey situation in a remote area, who are you going to call? The wardens – a police force that knows nature, how to protect it and how to protect those who enjoy being out in it.
They’ve got the specialized training to do surveillance and investigations plus the right equipment to do expert, professional police work in places like a massive forest. Their mission always is to protect people and the natural resources – ultimately to ensure the public lands are safe for people to hike, hunt, bike, canoe, bird-watch, fish and more.
“And we work well with others,” a warden supervisor said. This morning’s multi-agency tactical operation was another illustration of coordination and cooperation among various agencies – each with an expertise needed for this case.
Because the police work at hand on this August morning involved illegal drugs and a hefty financial investment, the wardens knew they weren’t going to face inexperienced operators working the illegal grow.
“This is very dangerous work, to be sure. These are bad guys known to be armed,” a high-level warden supervisor said.
Deer hunter tip started the investigation
The August 10 operation was the end-game of a tip from a deer hunter back in November who saw something that just didn’t seem right.
The timing of the early morning police invasion of the illegal operation was based upon a period of intense site surveillance, including by aircraft, and with the public’s safety as top priority. So, while most of the state slept, the operation by stealth began with the wardens and other law enforcement officers in place.
“There was a long period of heightened awareness and uncertainty due to the possibility of subjects vacating the area, and heading toward our position at any time,” one warden said of those initial tense hours covering possible escape routes by workers. “It was hard to be certain there weren’t still subjects lingering in the area after the camp was infiltrated.”
The potential of having an encounter with an armed, fleeing worker was uppermost in the wardens’ minds. But they were prepared to handle it thanks to their training.
When the entire eradication operation was completed, six men were arrested and thousands of plants were destroyed.
Charges were filed on August 12 in the U.S. District Court of Western Wisconsin alleging the suspects – one man from St. Paul, Minn., and five men (including two brothers) from Mexico – worked the marijuana plant operation about 25 miles northwest of Park Falls. The five Mexicans are between ages 19 and 29 and the St. Paul resident is 40.
The defendants have been indicted by a federal grand jury on a marijuana manufacturing charge which carries a mandatory minimum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a maximum of life in prison. Also, the five individuals arrested at or near the grow face a federal firearms charge for possessing firearms during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime.
Ashland County Sheriff Mick Brennan told local reporters the nearly 10,000 marijuana plants destroyed after the early morning raid carried an estimated street value of $1 million.
Firearms, chemicals, irrigation systems at camp
The drug grow operation included a worker site where loaded firearms also were found.
One of the wardens who went to the site found makeshift huts and crude rooms hidden under tarps and disguised in trees. There were rifles and pistols. In other similar illegal drug grow operations, the warden said booby traps and other devices have been used.
In addition to the safety threats, the wardens say the environmental damage left behind at drug grows can be significant.
“You’ll find trees cut down and destruction of natural vegetation. There are chemicals brought in to fertilize the plants,” a warden said. “They’ll bring in thousands of feet of plastic tubing, extension cords, buckets and more.”
Alterations to the landscape is done to get the closest source of water to the plants, and that can include the tubing, use of generators to power irrigation systems and digging canals. Chemicals or fertilizers can be used on the plants to help growth – and these can be runoff sources of contaminations to the watershed. Clear-cutting of trees to get more sun to the plants can be done, thereby damaging habitat for native wildlife and plants.
And the chemicals, toxic materials or electrical cords could pose fire dangers.
“And there is garbage! You have these guys living on site and generating garbage. Nobody is carrying out anything.”
One warden theorizes the increase in Wisconsin’s drug grows is linked to grow experience among producers to manipulate the plant’s success with the state’s climate.
Others speculate the illegal grows in the United States are becoming more prevalent because they are part of drug trafficking organizations and others looking for income in a changing world economy – along with a way to avoid complications when transporting the drugs across the country’s borders.
“Wisconsin is part of a growing and disturbing national trend,” Wisconsin DNR Chief Conservation Warden Randy Stark said. “In recent years, state, federal and local authorities have dealt with carefully hidden and highly sophisticated marijuana grow operations that have disrupted the landscape in many ways and left a pricey mess to clean.”
Stark says the drug areas have grown along with the threat of potential danger to the public as grow workers often are armed to protect what is a valuable commodity on the drug market.
“This is why we all have to work together – the public and the authorities – to watch for these operations and to spread the word that this type of illegal and damaging grows on the public’s land will not be tolerated,” Stark said.
Last year, DNR wardens dealt with marijuana growing operations in small fields, 100 to 200 yards from the Ice Age Trail. There were arrests and felony charges against growers, including two who were each carrying shotguns during a harvest. A warden involved in the Ice Age Trail case said the arrests went without incident.
“The men were cooperative and did not threaten or attempt to use their guns against me,” the warden who made the arrest said. “But if those men had been of a different mindset and an unsuspecting hiker had stumbled across them as they harvested, things could have gone very badly.”
The U.S. Department of Justice in its report says the grows are becoming prevalent in the Midwest. Wisconsin is considered a regional drug transportation corridor with Interstate 90 and 94 as two major connectors.
Have fun on public lands, report anything unusual
Canoeists, hikers, birders, hunters, bicyclists – anyone who uses the public lands for outdoor fun – are asked to alert the wardens or their county or local authorities if anything unusual is spotted.
“It can be anything. A trail that seems heavily used can mean something. A stray bucket or piece of hose left at a waterfront,” a warden said. “Years ago, it was the presence of a single fertilizer can left behind that served as a sign.”
The wardens stress if you see something, do not investigate on your own. Back away the same way you came upon it. “These are public lands and the people have a right to use these lands and be safe,” the warden said.
“Public safety, especially the sporting public and resource protection, are an important part of our mission and this activity is a major impediment to ensure these goals.”
The Wisconsin Department of Justice has a program to target and stop illegal grows called the Cannabis Eradication and Suppression Effort (CEASE). Major marijuana growing operations on public lands in Buffalo and Shawano counties were busted in 2009 and 2010.
The DNR has a confidential tip line to report violations and suspicious finds of all sorts, including illegal marijuana found on public lands, at (800) 847-9367.