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 [email protected]