Northwoods poachers lurk in search of ginseng, big profitsSubmitted: 09/23/2013

Ben Meyer
Executive Producer

NORTHWOODS - Not too many things sell for hundreds of dollars per pound, unless we're talking gold or silver.

But northern Wisconsin forests produce something that's worth about just as much as something you'd find in a jewelry store.

And in many cases, taking it is highly illegal.

Poachers lurk in the forests of northern Wisconsin.

But they're not on the hunt for rare animals.

They're looking for rare plants - and big profits.

"There's decent money involved in ginseng root," says DNR Warder Supervisor David Walz.

Illegal harvest of ginseng root is a growing problem in Wisconsin.

It's shouldn't be much of a surprise, with how much wild ginseng can sell for.

For example, last year, "it was around $700, $750 per pound," Walz says.

I'm out in the woods looking for ginseng with Ryan Magana.

He's not actually a poacher - he's an ecologist with the DNR.

"This plant has cultural value in East Asia, among other places, with East Asia being prominent," Magana says. "They're willing to pay a lot of money for this plant. It's important to them culturally and economically. They're willing to pay a lot."

That's true, in part, because wild ginseng can be really hard to find.

"It's going to be subject to herbivory by deer, poaching by humans, and it has to be in the right habitat," says Magana.

A lot of the mesic soil and forest in Wisconsin - that is, not too wet or dry - is good habitat for ginseng growth.

In fact, 95% of the country's wild ginseng is taken from Wisconsin.

Ginseng harvest season started three weeks ago and runs through November 1.

The DNR regulates it heavily because it's so rare.

No harvest is allowed on federal or state lands, and harvest on private land requires a permit, property-owner permission, and taking only mature plants.

But with the prices ginseng can go for, poachers often throw those rules out the window.

"That's an issue that we often times see, with the money involved in ginseng root, we get some trespass issues," Walz says.

I'm not even allowed to say you exactly where Magana and I were in the forest, for fear that the place where we're looking to identify ginseng would be pounced upon by poachers.

We spent an hour searching and found nothing.

If poachers had found some, gotten caught, and been convicted, they'd be on the hook for hundreds of dollars in fines.

But with how much wild ginseng can go for, it's no wonder they take the risk - even if our search turned up nothing.

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