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A team of West Virginia University researchers counted 30 ginseng populations across New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Indiana, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia between 1998 and 2009. The team reported that of the 368 plants they discovered had been harvested, only five were taken legally.

“It’s very difficult to catch a poacher,” said U.S. Forest Service botanist Gary Kauffman. “You could put everything in a backpack and your hands are clean, nobody really knows what you’re doing.”

A grand jury in southeastern Ohio charged Joseph Kutter of New Paris with killing a man whom Mr. Kutter claimed had trespassed onto his property to poach ginseng. Court documents say Mr. Kutter shot Bobby Jo Grubbs with an assault rifle in May and hid his body in a mulch pile. Mr. Kutter’s attorneys didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Sara Souther, a University of Wisconsin-Madison botanist who worked on the West Virginia University ginseng team, said multiple times she has encountered poachers trying to harvest the plant.

“These are intimidating people,” Ms. Souther said. “You can tell these men are not hiking. If you’re out there and witness an illegal act, you don’t know what people will do.”