Marijuana Growers and the Death of Fishers

Using harsh rodenticides, marijuana growers in California are threatening fishers, a critical umbrella species, on the Hoopa reservation and national forest land.

| July/August 2013

  • Tire Full Of Weed
    "I'm not focused on the pot plants," Gabriel says. "What makes my blood boil is the environmental damage being done on public land."
    Photo By H. Lee

  • Tire Full Of Weed

Hiking through the northern California woods in the course of doing his job, Mourad Gabriel frequently encounters angry men who are unhappy to see him. They’re marijuana growers, illegally using federal and tribal lands in remote, hard-to-reach locations. And their reactions to seeing him may range from yelling at him to brandishing their pistols or Kalashnikov rifles and posting his home address on a cannabis blog—along with the ominous observation that “snitches end up in ditches.”

Gabriel isn’t with the Drug Enforcement Administration or any other law enforcement agency. He’s a wildlife disease ecologist nearing the completion of his doctorate at the University of California, Davis, who has spent a decade studying fishers—furry, elegant predators the size of large house cats. Fishers once roamed our northwestern forests in abundance, but their numbers have dwindled dramatically in the region. Now Gabriel, 38, believes he has unlocked the mystery as to what’s keeping this species from bouncing back. And his discovery, alas, is what has outlaw pot growers reaching for their guns (or computer keyboards).

“I’m not focused on the pot plants,” Gabriel says. “What makes my blood boil is the environmental damage being done on public land.”

Hit hard by fur trapping and the logging of the forests they favor, fishers had all but vanished from their historic range by the early 20th century. Gabriel describes them as an “umbrella species,” meaning that they tend to be good indicators of their ecosystem’s overall health. By studying the remaining fishers closely, biologists can get a sense of how other members of their ecosystem are faring.

In 2004 Gabriel was engaged in a study of predators on land owned by the Hoopa tribe in northern California’s Humboldt County. To his surprise, the fisher population on the reservation had declined precipitously in the years since a survey was made in the 1990s. Gabriel knew that fishers need mature forest to survive: they rest and raise their young inside the cavities found in the trunks of very old trees. The reservation still boasted plenty of ancient oaks, chinquapins, and Douglas firs. Why, he wondered, weren’t more fishers living there?

“Some of the fishers we were radio-tracking had died of rodenticide poisoning,” Gabriel recalls. “I couldn’t imagine how that had happened, since fishers live far from cities or farm fields.” He made the connection to industrial-scale marijuana farms after some members of the Hoopa tribal police showed him photos of grow sites they had dismantled after raids. Pesticide containers were scattered across the landscape, their poison baits marked with countless scratches made by the gnawing teeth of mice and rats. The pot growers, it soon became clear, were spreading large amounts of rodenticide around their plants to protect them from tiny pests. The rodents were living for several days after eating the poison—just long enough to be preyed on by fishers.

7/12/2013 12:27:57 AM

not on our public lands - in your home so that it and all you have can be taken from you once its decided (no, not determined) some law or le4gislation has been violated. the term weed is exactly what it once was and oh the joy of manipulating it into something 'better' than what was given...and for what? so a bunch of wheezing and hobbling old hippies can watch television without worrying about blistering their eyeballs? even more sickening would be discovering a bunch of people mysteriously dying in there homes as a result of ingesting something poisonous theyve grown out in the garden...a side note for m. gabriel: you'd be more likely to survive as a protagonist for asbestos abatement than even thinking those rogue farmers on public land would offer you one moments worth of respect when its their finger on the trigger... "he's done" - pot logic.

Jules Katz
7/10/2013 12:55:10 PM

I concur, because there are so many caregivers and growers who are doing it the right and legal way. Legalizing it all around removes this clandestine feel to it and unfortunately, people who are on the fence about the benefits of the drug and responsible use get clouded by the a-holes who go around the law. I use to live in Humboldt in the mid-90's and voted in '96 to legalize it. I now reside in Michigan where it's legal medicinally but we still have idiots that break the law and ruin it for the rest of us.

7/8/2013 11:01:04 PM

There's a simple solution staring us right in the face: Legalization.

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