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ASHEVILLE – A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a repeat American ginseng poacher to more than five months in jail for the illegal possession or harvesting of the plant, the Department of Justice announced.

Billy Joe Hurley, 46, of Bryson City, admitted to illegally possessing 83 American ginseng roots he dug from areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, according to court documents and sentencing hearing statements Thursday. National Park Service employees recovered the viable roots to replant them but estimate that, at best, 50 percent of them are likely to survive.

Hurley pleaded guilty to the poaching charge, his fourth such conviction, according to Anne M. Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.

"Illegally harvesting American ginseng from federally protected land areas poses a serious danger to a plant that is part of our national heritage," Tompkins said in a statement. "It is also a crime, and my office will continue to work closely with National Park Service rangers to prosecute poachers who profit from the illegal harvesting and sale of this endangered national resource."

The wild roots of American ginseng are a highly-prized tonic, particularly in Asian markets. A Park Service botanist testified Thursday that the American ginseng species is under severe pressure from poachers in the Smokies and may not be sustainable if it continues to be harvested illegally. A special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also testified that financial gain is likely to continue to drive poachers; fresh ginseng can bring up to $200 per pound on the black market.

"Ginseng is a precious resource, a difficult plant to grow, and one that we have been losing to illegal and unsustainable harvests as the forests are being robbed of younger and younger plants," said Cindy MacLeod, acting superintendent of the Smokies.

Ginseng was recently placed on the North Carolina watch list for plants in peril because of exploitation, said Steve Kloster, acting chief ranger of the Smokies. Each year law enforcement rangers seize between 500 and 1,000 illegally poached ginseng roots, according to authorities.

The Smokies are the largest fully protected reserve known for wild ginseng, but the once abundant plant has been significantly reduced to isolated patches because of overharvesting.

In 2011, Hurley was sentenced to 75 days in jail and fined $5,540 for possessing 554 wild ginseng roots. Later that year, he was arrested with 187 ginseng roots. He had digging tools, newspaper articles on ginseng poaching and a list of places to harvest in the national park. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail.

Hurley is slated to spend five months and 15 days in jail with this latest guilty plea.

"We are hopeful that this conviction will serve as a deterrent to others considering illegally taking this special resource," Kloster said.

In a separate case, a Tennessee man was sentenced to 80 days in prison earlier this month and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine. Christopher Ian Jacobson, 31, pleaded guilty to the illegal possession of 298 roots of ginseng.

Report illegal harvesting

Call the Law Enforcement Desk of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 865-436-1230 to report illegal harvesting activities of American ginseng within the Smokies.

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