SPOKANE, Wash. - The need to replant federal lands scorched by the West's massive wildfires has led to a booming market for sage seed - which has inspired rustlers to illegally harvest it from other federal lands.
Government agencies are buying seed to revegetate hundreds of thousands of acres blackened by wildfires in the West last summer and the year before. The aromatic desert shrub grows mainly on federal land, where it hasn't been cleared for farming and urban development.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers recently seized 40 bags of branches clipped from sage shrubs in the Hanford Reach National Monument, project manager Greg Hughes said Thursday from his Richland office.
Fish and Wildlife officials suspect the illegally harvested seeds were intended for a contractor who sells seeds to government agencies for revegetation projects.
''They're going out and harvesting the seed and going back and selling to the agencies they stole it from,'' said Roger Parker, a law enforcement agent with the Fish and Wildlife Service here. ''It's illegal entrepeneurism.''
Poachers often use tennis rackets to whack the desert shrubs to drop their seeds onto plastic tarps. When cleaned and dried, the tiny seeds can fetch as much as $100 a pound, Hughes said.
The extent of the problem isn't yet known, Hughes said, noting there is evidence that sage poaching has occurred at the Mid-Columbia Wildlife Refuge.
The agency also has received tips about potential sage seed poaching in the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada, where federal agencies have ordered 100,000 pounds of seed after wildfires, Hughes said.
In the Columbia Basin, a contractor and native seed company are being investigated, he said. No arrests have been made.
Removing plants or seeds from public land is illegal, punishable by fines of up to $5,000 and six months in jail, Hughes said.
Although sagebrush is as much a Western icon as cowboys and cactus, and still grows in great abundance, that doesn't mean sage-rustling can be overlooked, Hughes said.
The unspoiled sage-covered land near the Hanford reservation in south-central Washington ''is a very threatened, imperiled habitat, so much so it's been declared a national monument,'' he said. ''It's declining all over the West, but particularly here in the Columbia Basin.''
A host of animals make their homes among the sage, including the western sage grouse, which is being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act, Hughes said.
The shrub, which produces copious amounts of seed that doesn't germinate well, can be killed by improper harvesting.
''It's very important it's done right and with the permission of both public and private landowners,'' Hughes said.
''We use trained professionals and only at the right time, so we don't harm the reproductive cycle of the plant,'' he said. ''We contract with greenhouses to grow them out for us. Even that process is tricky.''
The Clinton administration in May designated 200,000 acres as the Hanford Reach National Monument, in part to preserve increasingly rare undisturbed shrub-steppe habitats.
Hughes said the seed recently seized likely will be replanted on the national monument.