When considering illegal hunting, most people don’t associate it with ramps.
However, as the popularity of foraging increases, poachers are targeting plants like ramps, a sought-after wild onion, and mushrooms like morels to sell to restaurants in the Chicago area.
Poaching involves taking anything from the forest preserves, including animals, edible plants, and flowers. Even the act of removing a plant can have unforeseen consequences and disrupt the ecosystem.
“Many people perceive it as harmless,” said Martin Hasler, deputy chief of the Cook County Forest Preserves Police Department. “The forest preserve belongs to all of us, and taking anything from it disturbs its natural state.”
Poaching in the forest preserves has always been a problem, but the rise of foraging has changed the methods used, according to John McCabe, director of resource management at the Cook County Forest Preserves. Employees have discovered areas where plants have been uprooted or completely destroyed.
McCabe attributes the increase in foraging to social media. People who frequent the forest preserves often share their foraging experiences, inspiring others to follow suit.
While some individuals gather small amounts of plants for personal use, the majority of foraging is driven by profit, agreed Hasler.
“There is a market for that,” said Hasler. “Poachers know where to go, what to look for, and where to sell their finds.”
Foraging can be done sustainably, but many foragers decimate areas by collecting large quantities of plants to sell in the city. Restaurants prefer locally grown ingredients, and they may unknowingly be purchasing illegally collected plants from the forest preserves.
“Even though we have healthy populations of these plants, in a county with a population of 5.2 million people, excessive foraging could devastate these populations within a short period of time,” warned McCabe.
Dave Odd, a professional forager who operates Odd Produce, a foraging organization that sells naturally occurring edibles and conducts foraging tours, supplied Chicago restaurants with foraged foods for about a decade. He faced challenges in running his business, as demand fluctuated greatly.
Odd collected foraged goods from various locations in the city, including street alleys and roadsides.
“Every forager has at some point taken something from somewhere they shouldn’t have,” Odd admitted.
During his peak, Odd worked with approximately 40 businesses on a weekly basis. He provided chefs with specific ingredients to enhance their dishes or create seasonal specials.
Ramps are a popular choice among chefs, and they are the primary species in the Chicago area that is at risk of overharvesting.
Kevin Erickson, senior manager of sustainable agriculture at Loyola University, is an active forager who teaches urban agriculture and conservation practices. He emphasized the importance of sustainable foraging techniques.
“There’s a reason why it’s illegal to uproot these plants from parks and forest preserves,” Erickson explained. “If everyone did that, they would disappear.”
Sustainable practices include combining invasive species removal with edible foraging, avoiding overharvesting, and leaving at least 25% of the plant or patch untouched. This allows the plants to continue thriving and replenish themselves within a few days.
“Many of these plants take several years to reach harvestable maturity,” Erickson said. “Ramps are a great example. Excessive harvesting often occurs because foragers feel they must take the plant before someone else does.”
Catching poachers in the act within the 70,000-acre forest preserves has proven difficult. When volunteers or visitors witness poaching, they can report it to the forest preserve police, but the poachers often escape before law enforcement arrives. Foragers have been known to abandon their collection bags and flee.
In cases where poachers are not apprehended, the collected vegetation cannot be replanted.
McCabe stated that poachers who avoid detection tend to adopt more covert tactics, such as parking in nearby neighborhoods and hiding their collection bags from other preserve visitors.
Poachers can be fined $75 to $500 depending on the offense. However, considering the estimated 62 million annual visits to the forest preserves, implementing permits for foraging or collecting would not be financially or ecologically feasible.
The forest preserve police have four full-time detectives dedicated to investigating poaching reports. Due to the difficulty of catching poachers in the act, it is challenging to determine how many poachers regularly frequent the preserves.
“Most people want to do the right thing and respect the rules,” McCabe said. “They know they should not be collecting in the preserves.”
For foragers, selecting the right areas ensures plants are not overharvested or poached. Adhering to sustainable practices is vital for the long-term health of the foraged habitat.
“Foraging involves exploring wild spaces,” said Erickson. “Whether or not you consume the food, there are other benefits to experiencing these spaces. We should value them as more than just sources of food.”
2023 Chicago Tribune.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Plant poachers damage forest preserves as demand for ramps and morels makes foraging more profitable (2023, August 4)
retrieved 4 August 2023
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Shambhu Kumar is a science communicator, making complex scientific topics accessible to all. His articles explore breakthroughs in various scientific disciplines, from space exploration to cutting-edge research.