Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Berry thefts threaten Chassahowitzka wildlife

Saw palmetto berries ripen in the Chassa-howitzka Wildlife Management Area.


Saw palmetto berries ripen in the Chassa-howitzka Wildlife Management Area.

WEEKI WACHEE — This time of year, wildlife officers know to be alert for signs that poachers looking for saw palmetto berries are trespassing inside the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area.

Cut barbed-wire fences, deep tire tracks and litter strewn on the ground all signal that someone has trespassed looking for the berries, which are sold to companies to make herbal medicines to treat prostate problems.

September and October are the prime harvest months for saw palmetto berries, said Gary Morse of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. While no arrests have been made recently, wildlife officers have stepped up patrols to stay ahead of the poachers, he said.

"It's our hope that the message is finally getting through," Morse said this week. "But you never know. There's always a demand (for the berries), and we know from experience how difficult it is to prevent people from taking them illegally."

Last year, FWC officers and Hernando deputies, acting on a tip, arrested several South Florida men on charges of illegally entering the management area and seizing more that 5,000 pounds of berries.

In the sputtering economy, palmetto berry picking has become a crucial activity for many, especially low-income Hispanic farm workers desperately looking to make ends meet. Some travel hundreds of miles to work in palmetto groves, where the heat index can easily reach 115 degrees. The intense environment is often dangerous and forbidding.

Last September, FWC and Hernando sheriff's authorities discovered the body of an Immokolee man presumed to be a berry picker inside the wildlife management area. Authorities said the man died from heat stroke.

According to Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-director Lucas Benitez, the lure of up to $1.20 per pound for the berries encourages some pickers to ignore risks such as rattlesnakes, wasps and heat-related illnesses.

"It's very hard work, but many of them have no choice," Benitez said. "They are trying to feed their families."

According to Morse, the problem of berry theft inside the 33,000-acre refuge has risen greatly in recent years. Despite their relative abundance, the loss of palmetto berries can create a hardship for native wildlife, especially the threatened Florida black bear, about 30 of which live inside the Chassahowitzka.

Refuge manager Chad Allison said that for many species of wildlife, palmetto berries are the only viable food available this time of year.

"It's a very important food source," Allison said. "And when it's threatened, the populations of those species are threatened as well."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or

Berry thefts threaten Chassahowitzka wildlife 10/07/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:32pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Have your say Tampa Bay on the region's future transit options

    Mass Transit

    TAMPA — It's time, yet again, for Tampa Bay residents to tell officials what kind of transit options they want for their region.

    The Cross-Bay Ferry docks at the Tampa Convention Center on its maiden voyage on Nov. 1, 2016. A regional premium transit study will determine whether a ferry, or other options such as express buses or light rail, would be a good addition to Tampa Bay. [SCOTT KEELER  |  Times]
  2. Today, a total eclipse of the sun will span the entire United States, crossing from the West Coast to the East Coast, for the first time in 99 years. (Dreamstime/TNS)
  3. What is poke? Here's how to make the Hawaiian dish at home


    In Hawaiian, "poke" simply means "to cut."

    Tuna Poke Bowl: For a classic poke bowl, try this recipe with ahi (yellowfin) and only a few other ingredients.
  4. MOSI, SPC, libraries offer safe solar eclipse viewing Monday


    If you couldn't score some of the hard-to-find eyewear that will let you watch Monday's solar eclipse, have no fear, there are safe viewing choices across the Tampa Bay area.

    Twin Falls High School science teachers Ashley Moretti, left, and Candace Wright, right, use their eclipse shades to look at the sun as they pose for a portrait at Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho. The district bought 11,000 pairs of solar glasses, enough for every student and staff member to view the solar eclipse Aug. 21

(Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP)
  5. SOCom seeks civilian drone pilots to develop new technology through ThunderDrone


    TAMPA — For the last three years, Nicole Abbett has been using drones as part of her photography business, with clients like the city of Tampa and construction companies.

    Josh Newby, 31, Palm Harbor, of Tampa Drones fly's a drone in England Brothers park, Pinellas Park, 8/25/16. As drone popularity increases as a hobby and business, local governments are navigating a legal grey area- where, when, and how should drone flights be allowed?