Warden: $100,000 wild ginseng federal case shows state commitment to resources, landowners

Warden Wire Section: Wardens in Action published on October 24, 2013

By: Joanne M. Haas/Bureau of Law Enforcement

Federal judge orders Wis.-Minn. Company to pay $100,000, halt ginseng trade for two years

A Wisconsin-Minnesota corporation convicted in August of violating the anti-poaching U.S. Lacey Act today was ordered to pay $100,000 in penalties and to pull out of the wild ginseng trade for two years in a landmark case a Wisconsin conservation warden calls a victory for the public’s natural resources and private landowners – and a deterrent for anyone thinking of violating the law.

Wis. Department of Natural Resources Conservation Warden Ed McCann of La Crosse says the case against Wiebke Produce Inc. – also known as the Wiebke Fur & Trading Company with stores in La Crosse, Wis., and Eitzen, Minn. – demonstrates Wisconsin’s commitment to its valuable wild ginseng and to stopping poachers who trespass to steal from private properties.

McCann says this case is about a business which knowingly purchased wild ginseng from individuals the business knew needed to have harvest licenses prior to sale – and falsifying official documents to transport that product across state lines which is the violation of federal law. “It would be like the deer hunter who doesn’t have a license but shoots the deer anyway. Then, the hunter brings the deer to the registration station and buys the hunting license from the registration station after the harvest,” he says.

“This case shows just how serious Wisconsin is about protecting this valuable natural resource from poachers and our landowners from poachers who trespass to take the plant,” McCann says. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the largest corporation case involving wild ginseng in Wisconsin to date. And, it has fueled multiple investigations in Wisconsin and other states.”

Today’s sentencing against Wiebke Produce Inc. was handed down by U. S. Magistrate Judge Stephen L. Crocker of the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Wisconsin in Madison.

Under Crocker’s ruling, Wiebke must pay $50,000 in fines for the violation of the U.S. Lacey Act – the nation’s law to combat illegal trafficking of wildlife, fish and plants. The corporation also was ordered to pay $50,000 in restitution for loss of the natural resource to the state of Wisconsin. McCann says the payment will be used for the state’s ginseng enforcement and protection program. The corporation also must refrain from any involvement in the ginseng industry for two years – which is until Aug. 6, 2015.

McCann says he believes Wiebke is the only operation which is both a vendor for ginseng licenses and is a wild ginseng buyer. And it is this double role which is what started the investigation.

“The investigation shows that Wiebke was knowingly purchasing wild ginseng from individuals who did not have a wild ginseng harvest license prior to harvesting the ginseng, as required by law,” McCann says. “In one case, one seller said he used the money he received from the sale of his wild ginseng to Wiebke to buy the wild ginseng license from Wiebke – all in the same transaction.”

McCann says then Wiebke “knowingly falsified the records in order to export this ginseng out of the state of Wisconsin, and in some cases, out of the country. And that is how they violated the Lacey Act – by knowingly breaking the state law, and crossing the state lines with falsified records.”

The DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement is responsible for monitoring and enforcing the state’s management plan governing how Wisconsin exports its wild ginseng internationally – as authorized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Flora and Fauna. Wild ginseng is classified as internationally regulated plant under CITES.

McCann in 2011 started looking at the Wiebke wild ginseng records, as required under the law, and noticed a pattern involving the timing of license sales and ginseng purchases of the plant which must be harvested from private lands only and with the owner’s permission.

The investigation involved records from 2009-2011, numerous interviews, search warrants and the seizure of a ginseng export shipment from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago .

“All of the ginseng harvested in Wisconsin was shipped to Minnesota for export,” McCann says. “In one case, cultivated ginseng was purchased and then was labeled as wild and comingled with wild for transportation out of the state of Wisconsin.”

McCann credits the many hours and expertise teamwork from the DNR conservation warden team based out of LaCrosse, local law enforcement, the Minnesota DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Gary Jagodzinski for the successful case.

“This involved a lot of work to confirm the company knew the law and knowingly violated the law,” McCann says. “We didn’t simply target a business. The investigation involved talking with individuals who were suspected of wild ginseng violations, and those interviews led to this business. These individuals were not law-abiding landowners looking to legally sell wild ginseng off their properties. These were violators, some with lengthy criminal records, and not landowners.”

McCann says the goal was to keep the business operating, but to hold it responsible for its ginseng violations. This sentence allows that to happen.

“Wisconsin is serious about protecting its wild ginseng,” McCann says. “And the goal is to level the playing field for law abiding businesses and to cause anyone else contemplating wild ginseng fraud to think twice when they hear about the $100,000 in penalties and two-year suspension from the wild ginseng trade.”

If you have information regarding natural resource violations, please call: VIOLATION HOTLINE: 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367. The hotline is in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trained staff relay reported information to conservation wardens. Anyone who calls the Violation Hotline or provides information can remain anonymous.

Last Revised: Thursday, October 24, 2013

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