Should our natural resources be sold off to the highest bidder?
Should they be used for profit while the wildlife that depends on
them for food be depleted of enough sustenance to survive?
That’s exactly what is happening in Florida with the saw palmetto berries.
These berries that have been said to help prostate health and some other ailments
have become quite a big business for pharmaceuticals, the companies that sell to them and the people who pick the berries. Eighty percent
of saw palmetto berries come from Florida.
The saw palmetto berries become ripe in August through September. A time when many migrant workers are out of work because there are no crops to pick. So they have turned to the saw palmetto berries.
The saw palmetto berries come at a cost to the pickers. They even risk their lives as rattle snakes make their homes in the palmetto bushes. There are biting insects and jagged leaves on the bushes that cut their hands and arms. They must wear protective gloves and long sleeves and pick in the Florida heat. But it’s all worth it to them.
They can make over a thousand dollars in just a few days.
Most pickers go out together and pick. Perhaps they are families. They load up in a truck with their bags and machetes and find a spot to pull off of the road to pick for the day. Usually the driver leaves and comes back and picks them up because leaving a truck on the side of the road would be a risk to be found out that they are picking illegally. They pick on private lands without permission. They pick on state land where it is now illegal
since a one year moratorium was placed on the picking of them on state land by agriculture commissioner Adam Putnam who was pressured to do something after public outcry.
These groups of pickers have proven to be a problem to law enforcement who when they come upon them do not have enough man power or vehicles to arrest them. So they make them dump the berries
and send them on their way. One person who doesn’t like the berry pickers said that the private land owners should call the cops to arrest them and stay there to retrieve the berries and go sell them themselves. Not exactly what needs to happen
In 2005 the berries were selling for thirty-five cents a pound but
now are up to as much as three dollars a pound. According to the Hearld
Tribune in Sarasota which ran an article in 2005 about the berries, they had been quietly being sold for more than twenty years. Here we are ten years later and little has been done.
Black bears forage on these berries at a critical time of the year when they are trying to pack on pounds as they prepare to enter into the denning season when they can lose 25% of their weight. And for females, it’s a matter of life or death to their unborn cubs who require this nourishment
to become viable.
As per the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) –
“The relation between the Florida black bear
(Ursus americanus floridanus) and saw palmetto (Serenoa
repens) epitomizes the complexities and challenges in
developing habitat management guidelines for the
Southeast’s largest land mammal. Both species were
once widespread throughout Florida, but now exhibit
patchy distributions throughout the state. Both species
provide keystone processes for the ecosystems in which
they reside: the black bear as a seed disperser (Maehr
1984a, 1997a) and saw palmetto as preferred food and
cover for hundreds of animal species (Maehr and Layne
You can see this is a critical plant for bears as well as other wildlife but for many years these berries have been allowed to be picked for a $10 a day permit on state land by the Florida Forest Service. Surely, the FWC knew about this. They are suppose to work together. And yet
it never stopped it. Besides the harvesting there has been burning off of palmettos in controlled burns of scrub land. These burns cause the palmettos not to be able to produce berries because of burning them back to the ground as well as have other negative effects.
In a report by, by Linda Conway Duever Conway Conservation, LLC regarding the Ecology of Saw Palmetto Management, the FWC says the following: “We have been, in effect, managing saw palmetto landscape ecology backwards. We should use longer fire intervals for substantial habitat patches deep in natural area interiors and shorter intervals in more buffer zone areas. This would help protect fruit resources from poachers and keep berry-seeking bears and frond-accumulation fire
hazards away from people, hence reducing the huge costs of nuisance bear incidents, traffic accidents, and urban interface wildfires. Managing mesic South Florida flatwoods for a more natural and diverse landscape mosaic by burning more palmetto in patches closer to the <10 acres/burn area typical of lightning fires in that region is also important, as is remembering that bears and/or panthers may be harmed if fires enter the old palmetto stands they use as denning cover. Since Serenoa repens is predicted to be extraordinarily persistent in the face of climate change, improving management of this species to increase its wildlife value can be
viewed as an especially good longterm investment.”
We have noticed an increase of bears visiting neighborhoods to forage through garbage and whatever else they can find. It has been shown in other states when there are low mast years, bears will venture out into neighborhoods, even breaking into homes in order to find enough to eat. Those low mast years where created by nature in those states. But in Florida, it is man who has created the problem.
Clearly, this problem needs to have more attention. A permanent ban on harvesting of the berries on state land and possibly to include private land. Protections need to be in place to keep these plants safe from humans for the sake of all wildlife. Along with these protections, heftier
fines need to be implemented because as it is, it’s worth it to the harvesters to risk the smallfines in leiu of the rewards they get when they sell them.
The group, Speak Up Wekiva along with senator Darren Soto (D-Fl), has introduced a bill called The Florida Black Bear Habitat Restoration Act. This needs to be supported by everyone as it will help to make these important plants safer.
Together we can all help by reporting harvesters when we see them and protecting the saw palmettos
wherever they are.