Increasingly organized gangs of poachers are killing wildlife, yanking up plants and stealing valuable bits and pieces of the nation's parks, threatening the biological diversity and cultural heritage they were created to protect.
Black bears have been slaughtered in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia for their gallbladders, used in traditional Asian medicines. Nearly every week rangers in Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida stumble upon headless carcasses of alligators butchered for their skulls and tail meat. Cactus rustlers are depleting prized saguaro and barrel cactus from Southwestern parks to feed demand from the domestic landscaping market and cactus collectors in Europe and Japan.
Rocks, shells, sponges, herbs, flowers, butterflies, beetles, spiders, fish, reptiles, mushrooms, moss, fossils, Indian artifacts, human remains if it can be found in a national park, chances are someone is trying to pilfer it.
"It's just of a magnitude most people can't comprehend, it's that widespread," said John Garrison, chief ranger at Blue Ridge National Parkway in North Carolina.
In its fiscal 2006 budget submission to Congress, the National Park Service warns that "the poaching of wildlife from national parks has been steadily increasing each year for the past several years The data suggests that there is a significant domestic as well as international trade for illegally taken plant and animal parts."
Poaching "is suspected to be a factor in the decline of at least 29 species of wildlife and could cause the extirpation of 19 species from the parks," the agency said.
A 1988 park service study identified 105 species of animals that were being poached from 153 parks. Another study in 1992 identified 99 species of poached plants, 20 of which are federally listed as threatened or endangered.
"These numbers, I feel, are significantly underestimated," said Clay Jordan, acting Northeast regional chief ranger.
Bill Halainen, who edits the park service's daily "Morning Report" of law-enforcement incidents in the nation's 388 park units, said the most significant change over the past 20 years has been "that instead of a couple of good ol' boys doing the poaching for local use and consumption we are finding organized rings that use the parks to take resources and market them."
"They are not coming in to take one bear or pick a few mushrooms," Halainen said. "They are coming with the object of harvesting larger quantities to sell on the open market or the black market."
Conservationists say there is not enough money to adequately staff the parks to deter poaching. For example, only 14 rangers patrol California's Death Valley National Park, a 3.3 million-acre preserve nearly the size of Connecticut.
"When you have an insufficient operating budget, one of the consequences is not enough rangers and other park staff to protect these invaluable cultural and other natural resources," said Blake Selzer of the National Parks and Conservation Association.
The number of park service employees has declined nearly 10 percent, from 20,014 permanent staffers in the fourth quarter of 2001 to 18,218 in the first quarter of 2004, the conservation association said.
Seventy-five House members signed a letter this week asking for a $150 million increase in the park service's budget.
Last year, Operation VIPER a joint effort of the park service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries led to charges against more than 100 people in seven states involving the sale of black-bear organs and wild ginseng poached from Shenandoah and other public lands.
Dried, ground and sold by the gram, bear gallbladder can have a street value greater than cocaine, the park service said. Although local hunters collect only $25 to $200 for the gallbladder, it may be sold overseas at auction for thousands of dollars.
One bowl of bear-paw soup can sell for more than $60 in some Asian restaurants in the United Service and for hundreds of dollars overseas, the park service said.
Wild ginseng sells for as much as $400 a pound, compared with commercially grown ginseng, which sells for only a few dollars a pound. One man apprehended in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky had more than 600 ginseng roots in his possession, including one root that a park botanist determined to be more than 40 years old, a park service report said. Ginseng thieves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park use handheld global positioning devices and walkie-talkies to locate the best harvesting areas, the conservation group said.
One of the factors driving the poaching of plants and animals is that many of the most valuable species are becoming increasingly scarce on non-public lands, law-enforcement officers said.
"The National Park Service and the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service have the best and last habitats for endangered wildlife and plants in the United States," said refuge officer Lennie Jones, a 29-year veteran of the wildlife service.
"The commercialization of wildlife has raised the monetary value of wildlife to criminal organizations all over the world," Jones said. "The same people that kill sea turtles to sell the meat and carapace are the same people smuggling narcotics and illegal aliens."
Numbers are hard to come by, but federal authorities said they believe the vast majority of poaching goes undetected. "When you see the top of the iceberg above the waterline," Jordan said, "it's hard to know how much is below the water that we can't see."
E-mail Joan Lowy at LowyJ@shns.com..