Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Montana ban on morel mushroom picking is creating a black market for the high-end product

A hunter picking mushrooms in Montana
despite a ban (NPR photo by Nicky Oullet)
Mushroom hunting has become the newest illegal business. Hunters can haul in large sums of money from restaurants for black morel mushrooms that grow in the spring and summer after forest fires in the West, Nicky Ouellet reports for NPR. Too many hunters are creating safety concerns—fire officials consider some of the areas still dangerous—and large crowds of mushroom hunters are leading to an increase in trash and damage. That has led Montana officials to make it illegal to pick in burn zones in any of the state's national forests.

That hasn't stopped hunters like Matt Zaitz of Kansas, who says he "can sell a pound of morel mushrooms for about $20," Ouellet writes. "On a good day—which is by no means every day—Zaitz says he can bring in a harvest worth $500. He says there's potentially millions of dollars to be made off mushrooms in Western public lands, especially in burn zones the summer after a big wildfire."

"Usually, the U.S. Forest Service offers a special license to pick morels for commercial use in burn zones. This season, the Forest Service decided to only issue personal-use permits, which limit a picker to 60 gallons for the entire season," Ouellet reports. "It also requires pickers to cut their mushrooms in half so they can't sell them."

Mushroom hunters like Renee, who lives in Kalispell, Mont. typically sells "her morels to chefs at restaurants or from the back of her truck for $20 a pound," Ouellet writes. This year she said she's hesitant to sell mushrooms openly, and instead has be selling on Facebook "in what's become something like a mushroom black market. She feels the Forest Service is making her into a criminal for something she's done legally for years." She told Ouellet, "We don't want to get in any trouble, we certainly don't want to get our buyers into any trouble. We try to sell them under the radar, but it's been very difficult."

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