Illegal Berry Picking Threatens Florida Black Bears, Other Wildlife

By: FWC Release
By: FWC Release

Tallahassee, Florida --

Saw palmetto berries are critical to the survival of many native wildlife species, but none more so than the threatened Florida black bear. But before the bears and other wildlife can take full advantage of the fall crop, some people, seeking easy profit, illegally harvest the berries from wildlife management areas (WMAs). Unaware of the berries’ source, drug companies pay high prices for the berries, which they use in making medicines.

While some state agencies issue permits for picking saw palmetto berries on lands they manage, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) generally forbids the practice on its lands, because of the critical relationship of berries to wildlife. Chassahowitzka WMA, in Hernando County, has been hit particularly hard by berry poachers this year, which concerns Chassahowitzka manager Chad Allison.

“Trespassing berry poachers are proving to be a detriment to bears and occasionally gopher tortoises,” Allison said. “They are also an annoying distraction for hunters. Poachers cut down fences and leave behind litter. We also have found gopher tortoises hidden in the bottom of bags full of ill-gotten berries.”

FWC canine officer Joe Wolff and officers Damon Pulaski and Luke Davenport are among those who have ratcheted up their patrols on Chassahowitzka WMA to stem the increasing tide of illegal activity related to palmetto berry picking.

On Oct. 4, Pulaski received information that a pickup truck had entered Chassahowitzka WMA and was attempting to exit without properly checking in or out and not paying the required daily-use fees. Pulaski called Davenport, Wolff and the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office to assist. FWC officers and deputies stopped the suspect vehicle on Indigo Road before it left the WMA. In the vehicle were six men, along with 5,000 pounds of illegally picked palmetto berries in the truck bed.

The six men, all from Immokalee, were arrested and booked into the Hernando County Jail for illegal entry into the WMA 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.

Arrested were: Jose Santos Lopez (DOB 04/04/84); Arturo Velazquez Barcenas (DOB 09/20/61); Pedro Aguilar Bodinez (DOB 10/12/77); Jose L. Ayala-Mejia (DOB 03/30/70); Rolando Domingo Aguilar (DOB 05/10/92); and Melvin Alvarado Nazar (DOB 01/28/72).

Another arrest occurred on Sept. 30, when Pulaski received a Wildlife Alert Hotline tip about four men who had entered Chassahowitzka WMA illegally. Pulaski searched and found a 200-pound sack of palmetto berries and a bucket, but no sign of the berry pickers who had illegally entered. Wolff and Davenport joined in the search, and with the expert help of canine Mojo, tracked down Sarvelio Perez (DOB 01/20/87), address unknown. Perez was arrested and booked into the Hernando County Jail, charged with illegal entry into Chassahowitzka WMA and possession of saw palmetto berries.

The Wildlife Alert Hotline, 888-404-3922, is a 24-hour, toll-free number that residents can call to report illegal fish and wildlife activities. Complainants can remain anonymous and be eligible for a reward. For more information on the Wildlife Alert Program, visit MyFWC.com/Violation or call the nearest FWC regional office.


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  • by arron Location: immokalee on Aug 30, 2011 at 10:50 AM
    today i was picking palmetto berries on state land, and the police made me leave. On the side of the canal there is 30 ft of land before the land owners land. You can fish but i guess you can't pick berries on the side of a state road. so much for my florida..
  • by buddy Location: Tallahassee on Jan 31, 2011 at 05:25 AM
    You know bears eat other things other than palmetto berries, they eat all kinds of berries especially galberries and they love acorns too. However it seems that the state wants to get rid of oak trees and the acorns they produce from public lands. So manybe the state should arrest itself for destoying a valueable food source for wildlife.
  • by M Location: Big Bend on Oct 19, 2010 at 12:52 PM
    I don't know about Hernando County, but as for north Florida, the bear population is NOT threatened. These destructive and dangerous critters are very plentiful in this area. I'm thinking that our all-knowing officials are waiting for the right time, then create a 'special hunt' for bear, then charge a few hundred dollars for a permit, require expensive 'special equipment' and a 'special bear hunting course', which are not readily available, to even qualify to hunt them, just like the gator season. Before you know it, the hunt is priced out of range of most residents- just like the gator season.
  • by NOT Location: METRO on Oct 8, 2010 at 08:13 PM
    Make it so that the bears a boon to private property owners and there will be lotsa bears. How could we do that? Hmmm... Hunting would work, but the peta-types don't like that. They say it is mean to shoot animals. But you know what really makes me ashamed to be human? People who maim and kill helpless plants. I mean, plants can't even run away and hide or anything. You won't believe this, but some people actually raise plants like they are pets, AND THEN EAT THEM. It's like that was their plan all along. AND THEY ARE ALL PROUD ABOUT IT!? They are all like, "Oooh, I'm a gar-r-r-dener..." Shocking! Really, really SICK and disgusting.
  • by ETurnage Location: Tallahassee on Oct 7, 2010 at 04:14 PM
    Let me get this right. Black bears are few in number. So few in fact that they are a protected species. Yet Florida with abundant woodlands is worried abour saw palmetto berries? So is the number of black bears being purposely understated, or is this just another way to justify fee and budget increases for the FWC ?
    • reply
      by wak on Sep 28, 2011 at 10:41 AM in reply to ETurnage
      the berries are good for heart burn, try you some, that's why the bears eat them..
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