Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Why isn’t it illegal when developers destroy Venus Flytraps, and other reader questions

When a Brunswick County man was jailed under a $750,000 bond, facing hundreds - yes, hundreds - of years in potential prison time for stealing Venus Flytraps readers had questions: how does the Venus Flytrap law work, has be applied before, and -- frequently -- what about developers who essentially dig up flytraps in order to build new developments?

The Flytrap Frolic is a family-friendly annual event held at the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Garden, behind Alderman Elementary School. (Port City Daily photo /COURTESY STUART R. BORRETT)
The Flytrap Frolic is a family-friendly annual event held at the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Garden, behind Alderman Elementary School. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Stuart R. Borrett)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Archie Williams could spend the rest of his life in prison for poaching 216 Venus Flytrap plants out of Green Swamp Game Land in Bolivia.

If each of his 216 counts of felony taking of the vulnerable species is prosecuted, under the state’s Class H felony sentencing guidelines, Williams could serve 72 years, to a maximum of 450 years. However, it’s not likely Williams’ maximum sentence gets carried out.

Related: Update: Man charged with 73 counts of poaching Venus Flytrap, bond at $750,000

After news of the arrest, the first large-scale felony Venus Flytrap arrest in years, Port City Daily received multiple questions about the case. Readers wanted to know if something like this had happened before, and how the law worked. Readers also wanted to know: Why is it a felony for this person to take Venus Flytraps when developers frequently clear land with flytraps likely on it, without so much as a fine?

Public vs. private

Turns out, the vulnerable species’ protection is strongest on public lands. Taking just one Venus Flytrap from the public domain — a Class H felony — could result in four to 25 months in prison. Stealing the plant from someone else’s private land, without written permission on hand, is also a felony.

However, under the state’s plant conservation laws, specifically 02 NCAC 48F .0407 (3), property owners aren’t required to obtain a Protected Plant Permit to collect or remove flytraps from their own property. But if they wanted to sell the plant, they would need the permit.

J.D. White, a Wildlife Resources Commission master officer, said his team has reason to believe Williams was in a pattern of stealing the tiny carnivorous plant. When White and his colleague approached Williams, White said they were lucky to catch him during his allegedly weekly routine.

“I think he was in there two hours and 45 minutes,” White said about Williams’ time at the Pinch Gut Tract of Green Swamp Game Land, publicly-owned lands. “He had dug 216 plants.”

(Author’s note: Before reaching the Wildlife Resources Commission Monday, Port City Daily reported Williams was arrested on 73 counts of felony taking, as listed on the Brunswick County Sherriff’s Office inmate search system. However, according to White and court records reviewed by Port City Daily Wednesday, Williams was charged with 216 counts, contained within 73 court files)

Williams isn’t the only poacher in the region, according to White. Officers often find dug-up holes where the plant used to be, but rarely catch poachers in the act, White said. “There’s more that’s going on than people realize,” he said.

The difference between what the officers caught Williams doing, and, say, what developers do, comes down to public versus private land use, according to White.

“It’s a valid question,” he said.

Game lands and other public spaces are preserved for a reason, White said. “These places are set aside just as a safe haven for these things,” he said. “The developers — we really get to a point where we don’t have an option. We’ve got to grow or we’re going to be living on top of each other.” 

Flytraps are indigenous to the area. The plants, which are only a few inches tall, can only naturally grow in a 60-to-70 mile radius of Wilmington. White said without public lands, there’s less and less space for the plant to survive.

Developing – you have to weigh the odds for what’s going on. The greater good,” he said. “But these game lands, they’re not being developed.”

Archie Williams is being held in Brunswick County on a $750,000 secured bond after being charged with 216 counts of felony taking of a Venus Flytrap. (Port City Daily Courtesy/Johanna Ferebee)

The law

Taking Venus Flytraps used to be a misdemeanor. It could be settled by paying a small fine, between $10 and $50. But in 2014, New Hanover County Representative Ted Davis’ efforts to upgrade the crime were realized. After a couple failed attempts to get a flytrap felony into law, Senate Bill 734 passed. This made the crime a state-wide Class H felony.

“It used to have a very, very weak penalty,” Davis said.

To his knowledge, only one other incident resulted in felony taking charges.

Which I’m hoping means that the word got out that we have this law and we have this penalty,” Davis said.

In that 2015 case, according to the Associated Press, Scottie Gerome Stevenson and David Joel Lewis were caught stealing over 1,000 Venus Flytraps from Orton Plantation. Both were charged and convicted with only one felony count, compared with the 216 felony taking counts Williams was charged with on March. 16.

Stevenson, a habitual felon, is still in prison. He’s serving a six-year sentence, after being convicted of the felony taking, four consolidated misdemeanor counts of taking wild plants from land, and habitual impaired driving — only a maximum of one year of his setnence can be attributed to flytrap-related crimes.

Lewis was also convicted on one count of felony taking and four consolidated misdemeanor counts of taking wild plants from land, with a 36 month suspended probation. He’s currently marked as an absconder in the state’s Department of Public Safety offender system.

When Representative Davis was asked about the potential sentencing guidelines — 72 to 450 years –for the state’s recent felony taking case, he said several factors could mitigate Williams’ ultimate sentence.

“We have a sentencing commission you can run bills by,” Davis said. “They will look at it and see that that sentence is consistent with those that are [of a] like nature. Everyone up here was comfortable with that.”

Davis said the need to sharpen the law on flytrap poachers was born out of issues near Alderman Elementary School in Wilmington. With the help of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust, the law now includes extra protection for the species, listed “vulnerable.” This classification is one step removed from being threatened, species that are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

“The difference, if you’ve got a development, a lot of times what a developer will do is to dig them up and put them elsewhere on the property,” Davis said. “These people are digging them up and selling them. I don’t know of any developers that dig up flytraps on their property and then try to sell them.”

Working to protect the plant

Protected Plant Permits, which allow the sale of properly propagated flytraps, are issued by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (NCDA&CS). Andrea Ashby, NCDA&CS’s director of public affairs, encourages private property owners to seek the department’s assistance in relocating the plant.

Because flytraps are a state-listed, rather than federally-listed species, Ashby said there’s no required development checklist including the species for private landowners.

“Where we would get involved with a private landowner is if they wanted to dig the plant up to sell, to share for research purposes or to relocate,” Ashby said.

The free permit would allow property owners to explore these venues, she said. “But, we are also happy to consult with a property owner about relocating state-listed plants if they contact us about that, advising on locations, habitat that best allows the plants to survive and thrive.”

The plants, which Ashby said have a “magical allure,” should be safe in public lands.

“The theory and thought behind [the law change] is when you take plants that are off the public lands, that’s robbing future generations from an opportunity to enjoy those,” she said. “The goal is to protect these unique plants where possible.”

Anyone with tips or information on potential poaching activity of Venus Flytraps, on either private or public lands, is encouraged to call the Wildlife Resources Commission hotline at 1-800-662-7137.

I’m grateful for any information I get,” WRC Officer White said.

Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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