Gila County Narcotics Task Force agents continue to search for illegal marijuana gardens with the same fervor that drove them during last summer's peak growing season.
The difference in winter searches is that agents no longer are looking for mature plants but rather signals and signs that a site could be, or might have been, a growing field.
Those signs include cultivated land, abandoned campsites, trash, plastic pipe, fertilizer sacks or 1/2- to 1-inch severed plant stalks in very remote areas of the Coconino and Tonto National forests.
"The plastic pipe, used for irrigation, is a good sign," a GCNTF agent said. "It can be coiled up or stretched out on the ground."
Winter searches for gardens received an unexpected boost from Mother Nature when snowstorms didn't arrive on schedule.
With no snow on the ground in the higher elevations, the gardens are more easily spotted.
Because citizen tips played a large role in eradicating 110,939 plants with a street value of more than $200 million last summer, agents are again asking for help in finding gardens.
"There are a lot of hunters, hikers and horn collectors out there," the agent said. "We are asking them to watch for possible garden sites, and if they are found, call us at (928) 474-0728."
Agents say even if the gardens and campsites have been abandoned, there is a chance the illegal growers will return next spring to begin a new crop.
Also, some growers prep new gardens in the fall and early winter, leave them, then return in the spring to tend the plants.
"Any tips we receive will help us get a jump-start on next spring and summer," the agent said.
Although GCNTF agents don't believe any growers will be tending gardens in the winter, they urge citizens who come across a possible site to be wary and leave the area immediately.
The word of caution comes on the heels of a Sept. 2, 2005 incident in which three Hispanic men overseeing a marijuana garden exchanged gunfire with bear hunters who stumbled upon their illegal fields.
After one of the hunters found himself face-to-face with a suspected grower, he backtracked, but not before several shots rang out.
The hunter later reunited with his three friends on a nearby ridge. Together, they decided on a show of force and fired shots in the direction in which the suspect had been seen.
The confrontation occurred near the Cross F Ranch south of Payson.
Ranch foreman Jeff Haught said he had an inkling for years that pot-growing operations could have been going on in the rugged, remote area.
Agents raided the canyon where the shooting occurred and found two marijuana gardens about a half-mile apart. Forest Service fire crews later eradicated 5,689 marijuana plants found there.
During the busy summer, drug agents raided seven gardens and arrested 13 Mexican nationals. All were charged with conspiracy to manufacture marijuana, which carries a minimum sentence of 10 years to life.