Task force agents and state fish and wildlife officers found thousands of plants growing on the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex near Stevinson.
Air boats sped down the San Joaquin River and helicopters launched and landed, all taking members of the Merced Multi Agency Narcotics Task Force to more than a dozen marijuana grows in remote areas of this wildlife refuge.
"Our drug task force has identified a bunch of just bad people that are basically pillaging federal and state public lands," Sheriff Mark Pazin said.
Pazin says a chopper crew recently spotted the pot plants during a routine flyover, so local and state authorities got a federal warrant to eradicate the illegal operation across this public park.
Action News took a ride on one of the boats to get a better look at the area where the marijuana is growing. We're told it's about a quarter of a mile up the hill over there, and authorities say it is having a negative impact on this natural habitat in more ways than one.
"They're taking water from the river to supply for these illegal marijuana grows. They're laying pipe and just trampling over everything. They're poaching, they're killing wildlife," Pazin said,
The refuge is a prime spot for migratory birds and home to deer, otters, and other animals that are threatened by the pesticides, pipes, and trash often found at the grows. Authorities are also concerned families could cross paths with armed guards who stay at the sites.
"We have located some encampments, a couple of rather large encampments, and aside from that, debris that it's clear they're staying there and tending to the grows, but the brush and terrain and water, there's so many factors out here that make it easy for a bad guy to hide," Sgt. Rich Howard said.
Agents did find more than ten thousand plants which will now be destroyed. But their work doesn't end there. They're also responsible for cleaning up the mess left behind at the refuge. And Sgt. Rich Howard expects to see many more sites like this one as the growing season progresses.
"With a lot of the ordinances that are in place now and medicinal not being as believable anymore, I think we'll see a lot of public lands shift, and it's going to make a lot of work for state parks, federal agencies, and our teams as well," Howard said.