Clad at times in camouflage, facemasks and face paint to blend in, poachers trod through the underbrush with makeshift tools such as tire irons and screwdrivers looking for ginseng, police say. They don't have any qualms about digging up immature roots; they want to get at the plants before other poachers or before the state's harvest season begins. However, that ensures that the plants don't reproduce and feeds a cycle of dwindling populations and rising prices.
Poachers know how to get around the conservation regulations. They'll dig ginseng out of season to get a jump on competitors and take it to dealers when the season opens -- or purchase permits after the fact. In other cases, dealers just look the other way, said John Welke, a Wisconsin conservation warden.
It's difficult to get a clear picture of the extent of poaching in the United States -- violation statistics are spread across layers of state and federal jurisdictions, but law enforcement officials and biologists across the eastern half of the country told The Associated Press they believe it's on the rise.
In Wisconsin, the leading U.S. producer of commercially grown ginseng, wildlife officials say violations such as harvesting wild ginseng without a permit or harvesting out of season tripled from 12 in 2007 to 36 last year.
Ohio wildlife authorities have made 100 arrests between 2008 and last year for various ginseng violations ranging from digging without permission to digging or buying out of season.
A team of West Virginia University researchers counted 30 ginseng populations across New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia between 1998 and 2009. The team reported that of the 368 plants they discovered had been harvested, only five were taken legally.
"It's very difficult to catch a poacher," said U.S. Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman. "You could put everything in a backpack and your hands are clean, nobody really knows what you're doing."
A grand jury in Southeastern Ohio charged 78-year-old Joseph Kutter of New Paris with killing a man whom Kutter claimed had trespassed onto his property to poach ginseng. According to court documents, Kutter shot Bobby Jo Grubbs with an assault rifle in May and hid his body in a mulch pile.
Sara Souther, a University of Wisconsin-Madison botanist who worked on the WVU ginseng team, said she has encountered poachers multiple times trying to harvest the plant.
"These are intimidating people," Souther said. "You can tell these men are not hiking. If you're out there and witness an illegal act, you don't know what people will do."