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Hunters warned to look for signs of pot grows, avoid confrontations

Deer hunters will be taking to the woods en masse next weekend during the middle of the marijuana harvest season, and police are warning hunters to steer clear of any suspected gardens for their own safety.

Already this season, two bowhunters have reported confrontations with armed guards from suspected marijuana gardens on public land in southern Jackson County, which law enforcement officials say has become a growing area for Mexican drug cartels. Hunters who stumble upon features such as irrigation pipes, manually widened game trails, garbage piles or even the smell of cooking tortillas should steer clear and avoid confrontations that could prove dangerous.

"You need to turn around and leave and consider yourself lucky," Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said. "If you push the issue, you might get yourself in a situation you'll regret."

Hunters or anyone who believe they have stumbled upon a marijuana garden are urged to take notice of their location and leave quickly by retracing their steps.

If there is immediate danger, call 9-1-1. If not, call your local sheriff's department. In Jackson County, call the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement Team tip line. MADGE can be reached at 541-618-1TIP.

The Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, the state's largest hunting organization, has offered a reward of up to $200 for anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of people responsible for marijuana gardens or other damage to public lands.

Tipsters, who can remain anonymous, should call the Oregon State Police hot line at 1-800-452-7888.

Oct. 2 marks the statewide start of rifle hunting for deer, and more than 180,000 hunters are expected to take to the woods. About half of Oregon is public land, with the vast majority of it federally owned.

OSP Lt. Darin Lux said Mexican drug cartels have taken advantage of good growing conditions and water availability on federal lands in Southern Oregon and Northern California to cultivate large marijuana plantations, with a definite increase in activity the past three years.

The plantations can contain thousands of plants that can potentially produce enough marijuana to fetch $5,000 per plant, police said.

"There's a lot of profit, and it brings a greater need to protect that profit," Lux said. "That's when the arms come in."

Medford police Lt. Tim Doney, a member of the MADGE team, said the confrontations between bowhunters and suspected garden guards occurred during the start of the bowhunting season in late August and the first week of September.

In one case, a bowhunter told MADGE detectives he heard gunshots strike a tree just above his head, and then he was confronted by a man carrying an assault-type rifle who told him to leave, Doney said.

"The hunter in this situation did the right thing," Doney said. "He backed out of the situation, took note of the location and called authorities when he got back to town.

MADGE received a secondhand report of a similar confrontation in the same area, which Doney described as being in the south Jackson County area. Both cases remain under investigation.

"Probably 99.9 percent of people won't have to deal with issues like this, but certainly they are occurring," Doney said.

Two Jackson County SWAT team members shot and killed a man Aug. 11 at a marijuana growing operation deep in the woods. A Jackson County Grand Jury ruled the shooting was justified.

Winters said authorities so far have pulled about 125,000 plants from 30 different gardens throughout a seven-county area of Southern Oregon and Northern California this year.

In these cases, police have noticed that game trails were widened near the gardens and that PVC piping was used to irrigate the plants, Winters said.

Some signs of nearby gardens included walls of cut brush on trails, the pungent smell of marijuana, piles of garbage and piping. Because the caretakers often live at the garden sites, the smell of cooking could be a warning sign.

"There's no way to know until you're almost into one of these, so there's no preventative way to act," Winters said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.