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DORENA, Ore. (AP) — Shovels in hand, a group of 15 middle school-aged kids from Dorena School took time out of their morning recently to plant Oregon grape at a nearby park.

The kids dug deep enough to give the plants’ roots a firm footing and pulled up rocks to loosen the soil. Accustomed to such restoration work, the group had 40 plants in the ground in less than an hour. The Dorena School kids had a specific mission last Thursday: replace the Oregon grape plants stolen by thieves in the park.

The thought of someone stealing the Oregon grape — the state flower, which bears purple berries that look like small grapes — might seem silly. But the thefts do happen to the ire of watershed restorers, park rangers and police. Over the past year the pace of Oregon grape thefts appears to have picked up, said Christie Johnson, park ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers in Cottage Grove.

Replacing stolen Oregon grape at the park near Dorena, in the Cascade foothills east of Cottage Grove, cost the Corps about $200, Johnson said. The federal agency manages Dorena Lake and nearby parks.

“When people steal these plants it costs money,” Johnson said. “It costs taxpayers.”

If caught, the crime also could cost the thieves. Illegally collecting native plants from public lands without a permit might result in as much as a $2,500 fine, Johnson said.

Oregon grape plants produce a bright yellow flower that becomes a small, grape like fruit that tastes nothing like a grocery store grape. The plants’ roots and bark contain berberine and other chemicals used in medicines to treat infections and stomach problems. Authorities suspect that changes in the herbal medicine market might have increased demand for Oregon grape, prompted more thefts.

“There are a lot of people who believe in using these herbal medicines,” Johnson said.

Oregon grape thieves don’t discriminate about where they steal the plants, uprooting the scrub from public and private land, said Audrey Squires, restoration projects manager for the Middle Fork Willamette Watershed Council. The Lowell-based nonprofit group leads restoration on and around the Middle Fork, a tributary to the Willamette River.

Squires has begun compiling a database of Oregon grape thefts after thieves brazenly took armfuls of the plants in March from a Middle Fork restoration project on private land.

The database shows 20 thefts in Lane County, as long ago as 2011 and as recently as this April. The data also indicates the number of thefts increasing more recently.

“I was shocked that it was so extensive because I had no idea that Oregon grape theft was a thing,” Squires said. Agencies reporting thefts included city Eugene Parks & Open Space, Lane County Parks and Oregon State Parks.

A motion-activated camera on Garret Towne’s property near Dexter captured images of Oregon grape thieves in March. The thieves came by bicycle and pickup truck, paid no mind to posted signs, and made off with bundles of Oregon grape that had been planted by the Middle Fork watershed group.

“That’s just a bold move to cross two ‘no trespassing’ signs,” Towne said. The thieves have yet to be caught.

Thieves at the park near Dorena likely were after the roots and bark of the Oregon grape, said Johnson, the park ranger. They left behind only scattered leaves where a cluster of Oregon grape bushes once stood.

The financial loss of the plants is just part of the problem, said Maggie O’Driscoll, education coordinator for the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council. The Cottage Grove-based nonprofit organization operates with a similar mission to the Middle Fork, but is focused on the Coast Fork, a different Willamette River tributary.

Yanking out Oregon grape, thieves ruin restoration sites and take away habitat for pollinating insects, like butterflies and bees.

Speaking for the Dorena School kids who volunteer hours for restoration projects, O’Driscoll had a simple message for Oregon grape thieves: “Hey, I did that, don’t undo my work.”

Fines might not be enough to deter thieves, so Jesse Ray Quigley, a sixth grader at Dorena School, thinks authorities should consider harsher penalties.

“I think (the thieves) should go to jail,” he said.


Information from: The Register-Guard,