The amount of marijuana ripped from illegal back-country gardens by statewide eradication teams has plummeted for the second year in a row, a reflection of changing growing habits and reduced enforcement.
As California's outdoor marijuana growing season comes to a close, numbers released by state officials shows eradication teams have destroyed about 1.5 million plants, mostly from federal forests. That's less than half of last year's haul.
But in a Santa Rosa neighborhood, authorities Friday were still chopping down towering pot plants following a lengthy investigation into widespread backyard pot cultivation.
The massive sweep of 33 residential marijuana gardens launched this week may be evidence that some cultivation efforts are shifting closer to populated areas.
"They are moving it in and growing much larger plants," said Sonoma County Sheriff's Sgt. Steve Gossett, who runs the agency's narcotics team.
In Mendocino County, deputies tore down more than 400 plants Wednesday from a property in central Covelo in Round Valley. "This was in downtown Covelo," Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said. "We're changing our investigations to go after people moving into neighborhoods."
Authorities across the North Coast this year reported spotting fewer of the massive back-country gardens they used to find in the rugged forests.
Medical marijuana laws may have coaxed some illegal pot cultivation out of the forests and nearer to water access and supplies, investigators said.
State Parks rangers found no pot gardens this year in the Russian River district, where large gardens were discovered in the past in parks such as Austin Creek State Recreation Area north of Guerneville, said Jenny Donovan, public safety superintendent.
Instead, rangers have focused on removing irrigation hoses, trash and other remains from deserted camps.
"I don't know how long this is going to last but we're very thankful for the fact that we haven't seen any active grow sites this year," Donovan said.
For nearly 30 years, the now-defunct state Campaign Against Marijuana Planting sent teams of law enforcement officers aboard helicopters into remote forest pot gardens to chop down plants. Gov. Jerry Brown cut the program from this year's budget, and the teams were restructured under federal leadership.
Now called the Cannabis Eradication and Reclamation Team, or CERT, fewer teams were dispatched in 2012 to rip up plants and were on pace to visit less than half the number of illegal gardens. Only twice did the teams work with Sonoma County law enforcement this year, compared to at least six days of eradication in 2011, Gossett said.
And in Mendocino County, teams assisted local deputies for eight days eradicating plants in the forests. Last year, they spent much of five weeks with the teams, including the three-week Operation Full Court Press.
Statewide, CERT teams destroyed 973,095 plants at 215 locations in 2012 as of Sept. 21, the latest figures available.
Roughly 55 percent of those sites were on Forest Service land, 11 percent on Bureau of Land Management property, 24 percent on private property and the rest on other federal or tribal lands.
The teams conducted their final raids this week, although details on those seizures were not available.
"By last year the end of the season had 2.2 million plants," said Michelle Gregory, with the state Department of Justice. "We're at a little less than half."