A Federal Register notice published on Feb. 23 explains how illegal cannabis grows in California are harmful to spotted owls, which are native to California. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) agency proposed the addition of two distinct population segments (DPS) of California Spotted Owl to be added to the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (which turns 50 years old in 2023). This includes a Coastal-Southern California DPS, which FWS proposes to be listed as endangered, and the Sierra Nevada DPS, which FWS proposes to be listed as threatened.

Among the FWS’s recommendations to help preserve the habitat of these particular spotted owls, FWS calls for action to reduce risk of wildfires (such as prescribed burns), target habitat management and restoration to help conserve the species, and improved cleanup after illegal cannabis grows.

“Management or cleanup activities that remove toxicants and other chemicals from trespass cannabis cultivation sites in California spotted owl habitat,” FWS wrote. “Cleanup of these sites may involve activities that may cause localized, short-term disturbance to California spotted owls, as well as require limited removal of some habitat structures valuable to California spotted owls (e.g., hazard trees that may be a suitable nest site).”

The FWS analyzed potential threats to these owls, such as parasites caused by climate change, extreme weather events, and more. In one scenario, the agency addressed the ongoing issue with high cannabis cultivator fees. “There will likely continue to be an increase in demand for marijuana, which may increase illegal grow sites using anticoagulant rodenticides in California if the costs of buying land and acquiring/maintaining permits to legalize a grow operation are too high,” the agency wrote.

Furthermore, the agency notes that anticoagulant rodenticide has increased with the rise in illegal cannabis operations. “A comparison of marijuana cultivation site likelihood with northern spotted owl suitable habitat found almost 50 percent overlap between the two,” the agency stated. “Although the number of illegal marijuana growing operations within the California spotted owl’s range is unknown, considering the number of illegal marijuana growing operations found throughout the State, there are likely thousands within the California spotted owl’s range.”

Law enforcement is regularly investigating and shutting down illegal cannabis grows, but FWS notes that their job is only to shut down the operation. “… there is currently no standardized clean-up protocol and a limited amount of funding to ensure removal of all rodenticides.”

Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office Field Supervisor Michael Fris is hopeful that these FWS recommendations will help restore this population of owls. “Our goal is to help the California spotted owl recover across its range,” said Fris. “Ongoing collaboration with a number of partners will result in positive conservation gains and put this species on the road to recovery.”

The impact of illegal cannabis grows has negatively affected many other species and habitats as well. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has previously targeted illegal grows during the summer growing season, both in 2022 as well as in 2021. Specifically, the waterways which countless animals rely on, such as salamanders, frogs, and salmon, have been threatened both due to drought, as well as illegal cannabis growers often divert water to grow their crops.

Cannabis grows are illegally using water and polluting groundwater in areas like San Bernardino County too. Efforts have been made to counter the water being taken and contaminated, according to Assemblymember Tom Lackey, who is a resident in the southern California high desert. “To any of those who are engaged in the illicit grows: I want you to know there’s a collective effort, and we’re coming after you,” Lackey said. “You come after a very sacred thing: our community. You come after our desert, and you’re stealing our water. You’re poisoning our land, and enough is enough.”

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