Game Wardens Working More Marijuana Cultivation Cases

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AUSTIN — Texas game wardens have recently been involved with four separate illegal marijuana cultivation cases in rural areas.

“During the last two months, we have been involved in four large-scale marijuana ‘grows’ — two in Fort Bend County, and two in Polk County,” says Col. Craig Hunter, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Director of Law Enforcement. “The last thing we want is for an unsuspecting landowner or group of lease hunters to approach an illicit grow site or camp. If you see something, get out of the area and report it.”

Hunter said in three out of four recent cases, game wardens were notified by land owners or lease hunters that someone was growing marijuana on property they owned or had access to.

“We have well-established relationships with landowners and hunting clubs so we are often the first law enforcement agency to be notified,” says Houston-based Maj. William Skeen, whose area of responsibility covers much of Southeast Texas. “On some occasions our game wardens have located the grow sites during their normal patrols.”

The problem is not unique to the Lone Star State. In other states, including Washington, California, and Arkansas, game wardens are involved with combating illegal grow sites. These operations break a lot of laws, including trespassing, destruction of natural habitat, violation of pollution statutes and illegal dumping. Additionally, grow sites utilize a large amount of water illegally pumped from nearby streams and lakes to supply often complex irrigation systems.

“We are not talking about small operations; several recently found grow sites in Polk County had over 100,000 plants,” says Major James Ranft, who supervises game wardens over much of East Texas. “Make no mistake about it, these growers have no respect for the land and are in it to make a lot of money.”

“The take-downs are risky and the grow operators have evaded arrest every time,” says Major Chris Davis, who supervises the TPWD SCOUT Team. “During a recent take-down, we located a camp within the grow site that had a chair with a hidden pistol that was loaded. When the take-down started, one of the suspects was sitting in the chair. In 2005, a California game warden was shot and injured during a marijuana grow site take-down.”

One recent enforcement effort in Fort Bend County was a joint operation carried out by TPWD game wardens and the Fort Bend County Drug Task Force. That task force is made up of officers from the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and several area police departments. Each offers their own expertise and assets during different stages of the operation.

“Game wardens first discovered the sites, and then worked with officers attached to the task force to set up the take-down plan,” says Capt. Nick Harmon, Brazoria County.

He said TPWD used local game wardens as well as game wardens assigned to the Law Enforcement Division’s Environmental Crimes Unit, K9 Team, and Scout Team.

“Like anything else we do, these operations are a team effort,” he says. “We always work closely with the DPS, county and city law enforcement and in several recent cases, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and Drug Enforcement Agency.”

Anyone spotting what appears to be a clandestine marijuana cultivation site is urged to call the TPWD Operation Game Thief hotline at 1-800-792-4263 or their local 911.