American ginseng with berries. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

American ginseng with berries. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Ginseng can be found in sports drinks in supermarket coolers and pills on health food shelves.

Called “zang” in some circles, American ginseng grows wild in much of the eastern United States, but most of it is sold to Asia where it goes for top dollar as folk medicine.

To keep from wiping out the plant, ginseng is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and conservation officials limit when it can be picked and dictate how old specimens have to be before they are dug up.

But a spike in ginseng prices had brought poachers into the woods. These illegal harvesters forego permits, dig out of season, trespass on private property or sneak into parks, where harvesting is prohibited.

Last week, two men were sentenced to prison for harvesting the lucrative root in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here are the details from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for North Carolina’s Western District:

Ginseng Root Poacher Sentenced To Jail Time
Another Poacher Sentenced To Jail For The Illegal Harvesting Of 298 Ginseng Roots

ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Billy Joe Hurley, 46, of Bryson City, N.C. was sentenced to five months and 15 days in jail for the illegal possession or harvesting of American ginseng from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

According to information from sentencing hearing and documents, on June 28, 2014, Hurley admitted to illegally possessing 83 American ginseng roots he had illegally dug from areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hurley pleaded guilty to the poaching charge, which marked his fourth such conviction. Staff of the National Park Service replanted the recovered viable roots but estimate that at best, 50% of the replanted roots are likely to survive.

At the sentencing hearing, a National Park Service botanist testified that the American ginseng species is under severe pressure from poachers in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and may not be sustainable if it continues to be harvested illegally. During the hearing, a special agent with of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also testified that financial gain is likely to continue to drive poachers and that fresh ginseng can bring up to $200 per pound on the black market.

In a separate case, on August 6, 2014, Christopher Ian Jacobson, 31, of Cosby, Tenn. was sentenced to 80 days in prison and was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Jacobson pleaded guilty to the illegal possession of 298 roots of ginseng.

American ginseng is a native plant in the Smoky Mountains. These wild roots are also a highly prized tonic, particularly in Asian markets. Dried ginseng roots are used in medicines, teas, and other health products. American ginseng was recently placed in North Carolina’s Watch Category 5B, which includes generally widespread species that are in commercial demand and are often collected and sold in high volume. This category was created to bring attention to the issue, since such high volume collection is unsustainable in the long run.

Ginseng harvest in the park has always been illegal. It is legal to harvest ginseng outside the park on private lands or with a permit in certain Forest Service areas during the harvesting season. Park scientists have realized these slow-growing native plants could disappear because harvesting means taking the entire ginseng root. Each year law enforcement rangers seize between 500 and 1,000 illegally poached ginseng roots. Over the years, park biologists have marked and replanted over 15,000 roots seized by law enforcement. Monitoring indicates that many of these roots have survived and are again thriving in these mountains.

The Smokies are the largest fully protected reserve known for wild ginseng. This plant was formerly abundant throughout the eastern mountains, but due to overharvesting, populations have been significantly reduced to isolated patches. The roots poached in this park are usually young, between the ages of 5 and 10 years, and have not yet reached their full reproductive capacity. In time, the park’s populations might recover if poaching ceased.

The investigation of the case was handled by Park Rangers of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park assisted by special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville handled the prosecution.