FWC cracking down on illegal harvesting of saw palmetto berries

October 30, 2019

An ongoing problem in Central and South Florida has now spanned across the Panhandle. The illegal harvesting of saw palmetto berries has been on the rise in several local state managed lands, and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) law enforcement is cracking down.

Saw palmetto berries.

Each year, the FWC Division of Law Enforcement works targeted details statewide into the illegal harvest of saw palmetto berries, which are typically harvested between the months of August to October. The harvest of palmetto berries is not allowed on any state managed lands. While the harvest of palmetto berries is legal on private lands with a permit and landowner permission, FWC officers have routinely responded to trespassing complaints and charge offenders appropriately. According to FWC officer Robert Ramos, more than 50,000 lbs. of berries have been seized across the Panhandle area.

Saw palmetto berry harvesters must possess a native plant harvesting permit from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) or face criminal charges. The permit is free.

Saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) fruits are high in crude fiber, potassium, ash, fats, and sodium and serve as an energy-rich food for raccoons, gray foxes, rats, gopher tortoises, opossums, white-tailed deer wild turkeys, turtles, and a variety of birds. In Florida, saw palmetto berries are the single most important food to black bears. It is also coveted by the pharmaceutical and herbal supplement industry.

Click here to learn more about saw palmetto.

Anyone who suspects that individuals may be picking saw palmetto berries illegally should contact FWC’s Wildlife Alert Hotline at 888-404-3922 (FWCC).

With the recent crackdown, some arrests have been made. Below are FWC’s law enforcement reports for Sept. and Oct. reflecting the citations and arrests:

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Law Enforcement Weekly Report for Sept. 12 – 26, 2019

Walton County:

Officer Tison was conducting surveillance on an area in Point Washington Wildlife Management Area where approximately 1,500 pounds of illegally picked saw palmetto berries had been harvested and hidden near a forest road. An individual on a bicycle came up to the location of the berries, looked around, and left in the direction he came from. A short time later a pickup truck pulled into the area and backed up close to the sacks of berries. Four individuals exited the vehicle and began loading the berries into the truck. Officer Tison contacted the individuals and they fled on foot. Officer Tison was able to apprehend the driver of the truck, who attempted to escape custody while in handcuffs. Walton County deputies arrived as backup and were able to apprehend a second suspect. The two individuals were arrested for resisting an officer without violence, and violations for the harvest of a commercially regulated plant. The driver was also cited for driving without a license.

Officers from FWC, Immigration and Customs, Department of Agriculture, and Eglin Security Forces worked a joint detail organized by FWC Officer Tison targeting the illegal harvest of saw palmetto berries on state and federally owned land. The detail resulted in the recovery of a missing child and multiple charges on four suspects. Three of the suspects were taken into custody by Immigration and Customs for deportation. One of the subjects with a criminal history had previously been deported and will face federal charges for illegally returning to the United States. Approximately 30,000 pounds of saw palmetto berries were recovered from the illegal harvest.

BAY / CALHOUN / WASHINGTON COUNTIES

Officers Gore, Hellett, Burkhead, Homan, Humphrey, Basford, Yates, Tison, and Lieutenant Allen responded to calls related to the illegal harvest and transportation of saw palmetto berries. The locations on state lands were Econfina Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and Pine Log State Forest (WMA). Approximately 2,500 pounds of the saw palmetto berries were seized, and the individuals were cited accordingly

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Division of Law Enforcement Weekly Report for Sept. 27 – Oct 3, 2019

OKALOOSA COUNTY

Officer Hahr was contacted by Eglin Range Patrol to assist with a group of subjects who were illegally harvesting palmetto berries from the Eglin Wildlife Management Area (WMA). When the officer arrived on scene, he saw five individuals in a vehicle that were in possession of 24 bags of palmetto berries. None of the subjects had a permit to harvest or transport the palmetto berries. They also did not have a permit to access the WMA from Eglin’s Natural Resources Office. Officer Hahr arrested the three adults who could not be identified and booked them into the Okaloosa County Jail. The driver of the vehicle was issued a notice to appear citation and the juvenile involved was turned over to the driver with no charges filed. The palmetto berries were seized and returned to the landowner.

Officer Maltais was patrolling the Eglin Wildlife Management Area (WMA) when he conducted a traffic stop on a U-Haul truck occupied by six individuals suspected of illegally harvesting palmetto berries. When the vehicle stopped, five of the occupants fled on foot into the woods. Officer Maltais contacted the driver and saw harvest buckets, string, a few empty bags, and approximately 50 bags of palmetto berries. The driver was arrested and booked into the Okaloosa County Jail for no harvest permit and no Eglin WMA access permit. A records search revealed that the individual had been previously arrested in Okaloosa and Santa Rosa County within the last 30 days for similar offenses.

Officer Specialist Rockwell and Officer Specialist Corbin were contacted by Eglin Range Patrol to assist with a traffic stop on Eglin Reservation. During the traffic stop, the Range Patrol saw palmetto berries in the bed of the vehicle. The officers arrived on scene and all three subjects were identified. The driver of the vehicle did not have a driver license. None of the subjects had a harvest permit or an Eglin WMA access permit. All three subjects were arrested and cited appropriately.