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Mushroom poachers busted at Crater Lake

National Park Service rangers are going after people poaching morel mushrooms now popping up all over the site of last summer's National Creek Complex fire, confiscating mushrooms and citing pickers who rangers say are threatening the post-fire ecosystem there.

Park rangers have cited more than a dozen recreational and commercial pickers, and rangers seized more than 234 pounds of morels with a market value of nearly $8,000 over the July 4 weekend alone, according to the park service.

"We confiscated more this morning," Chief Ranger Kean Mihata says. "Another group we got just before they started out. These morels are really popping up in the burn area."

Those whose morels were confiscated were cited for illegal collection of natural product, a federal misdemeanor, Mihata says. Violators can either mail in $130 in bail and fees or appear in U.S. District Court in Medford to contest it.

However, violators can be prosecuted and face potential fines of up to $5,000 in jail and a maximum six months in jail, according to the park service.

It is illegal to gather mushrooms on park service land, and many of the pickers held permits to pick on adjacent Forest Service lands also burned by the nearly 21,000-acre fire area, Mihata says.

Those permits specifically state that mushroom picking is illegal on park service land, but some of the offending pickers weren't paying good attention to park boundaries, Mihata says.

Most of the illegal pickers were in small groups, and most were just off the roadway near the park's west entrance, Mihata says. Park rangers were aided by Oregon State Police and Douglas County sheriff's deputies in surveillance of pickers, but only park rangers can cite violators on parkland, he says.

Morels are known to be bountiful after forest fires sweep through. Park service officials say mushrooms are critical components to forest ecosystems as a food source and as a natural aid in the recovery of lands disturbed by wildfire.

The lightning-caused National Creek Complex fire was the largest fire in the park's recorded history.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

A 234-pound pile of morels seized over the July 4 weekend from illegal pickers in Crater Lake National Park is displayed by rangers. Photo courtesy Crater Lake National Park