WEEKI WACHEE — Take a drive along the fence line of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area and you begin to realize the challenges of patrolling the 33,000-acre refuge.
Barbed wire fences have been mended after intruders have cut them repeatedly to gain access with their vehicles. It's a common problem, especially this time of year when saw palmetto berries are ripe for picking.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer Lt. Kevin Grover and his officers have been busy scoping out secluded patches along U.S. 19 where people have been illegally entering to gather the berries, which are sold to companies to make herbal medicines to treat prostate problems.
Officials got a tip Monday that a pickup truck had entered the management area at the main entrance of the Hernando Sportsman's Club and that the driver was attempting to leave without paying the required daily-use fees. FWC officers and Hernando deputies stopped the truck on Indigo Road and discovered about 5,000 pounds of illegally picked palmetto berries in the truck bed.
Six men in the truck, Jose Santos Lopez, Arturo Velazquez Barcenas, Pedro Aguilar Bodinez, Jose L. Ayala-Mejia, Rolando Domingo Aguilar and Melvin Alvarado Nazar, all from Immokalee, were arrested and booked into the Hernando County Jail for illegal entry into the management area 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.
On Sept. 30, officers, acting on a tip to the Wildlife Alert Hotline, found a 200-pound sack of palmetto berries and a bucket. With the help of a canine unit, the officers arrested Sarvelio Perez on charges of illegally entering the Chassahowitzka WMA and possession of saw palmetto berries.
The arrests were in the general area where another man, presumed to be a berry picker, was found dead last month.
For Grover, who has served 14 years as patrol supervisor for the FWC's Hernando law enforcement unit, it is a frustrating problem that seems has gotten worse every year.
"They have become bolder and more determined," he said. "They know there are a lot more of them than us. It takes everything we've got to just try and keep up."
FWC officials contend that the trouble with berry picking inside the management area goes beyond its illegality. Saw palmetto berries are critical to the survival of many native wildlife species, especially the threatened Florida black bear.
"It's robbing the wildlife of some of the only food available to them this time of year," said Chad Allison, manager of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, which is home to about 30 black bears.
In addition to littering, Allison said berry poachers have been known to illegally remove gopher tortoises and other animals from the park.
While some state agencies issue permits for picking saw palmetto berries on lands they manage, the FWC generally forbids the practice on its lands. In fact, anyone who enters the management area is required to purchase a $3 daily use permit.
With the rise in berry poaching in recent months, Grover has stepped up patrols. His five officers check daily along the fence line on U.S. 19 for suspect vehicles and scour the palmetto patches looking for berry pickers. But the poachers have been wising up lately, he said.
"They've taken to dropping off the berry pickers in the morning and picking them up at a pre-determined time later on. In order to catch them, we have to be there to see them."
Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or [email protected]