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What do ginseng, ferns and orchids have in common? They’re all poached in Michigan.

American Ginseng
Flickr user Forest Farming
American Ginseng is especially targeted by poachers in Michigan.

We know hunters who take deer or goose out of season are poachers. But what about those who take a plant from a park or a reserve without permission?

They too are poachers and plant poaching can be a huge, illegal business.

Brad Slaughter is the lead botanist at the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, part of the Michigan State University Extension.

In general, he said, landowners require permission to remove anything – a flower, a rock or a plant. But taking just anything isn't botanists' biggest concern.

“What we’re more interested in, is poaching that basically reduces the populations of sensitive species in the state,” Slaughter said.

One sensitive species, American Ginseng, is especially targeted by poachers. Slaughter said the dried root of the wild plant, which is popular for medicinal use, can be sold for hundreds of dollars, depending on the year.

Other species are valued for their garden popularity. For example, orchids are popular poached plants, as are ferns. Poachers of this variety will dig up the plants and transport them alive to a private garden.

Slaughter said plant poaching can upset the careful balance of an ecosystem. For instance, the first Michigan site of the federally listed American Heart’s Tongue Fern was poached and now doesn’t support any plants.

“There’s a general biological impoverishment that happens when we lose species from a natural area… we never like to see things disappear,” Slaughter said. “When you lose one species, there are a whole host of other species that interact with that species in such a way that they may too be affected...”

If caught, the fine for poachers depends on the species taken, but falls between $100 and $1,000. Slaughter said fines have not gone up to account for the black market value of some of the plants.

Officials are considering ways beyond monitoring to deter plant poachers. In the case of ginseng, land managers use a special nutrient mix that stains the plant's roots. This can help track illegally gathered plants and help catch poachers “red-rooted,” Slaughter said.

Listen to the full interview above.

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