Four men caught skulking around a nature preserve in North Carolina earlier this month have learned all about a new state law: It's now a felony to pick a Venus flytrap in the wild. The men, ages 22 to 49, were caught with 970 of the plants and earned the distinction of being the first to face felony charges under the law, reports the Daily News of Jacksonville, NC. It carries a penalty of up to 29 months in prison for each offense, along with fines. Had they been caught a month earlier, when it was a misdemeanor, they would have faced a $50 fine, notes the Raleigh News & Observer.
So why the big penalty? Because the poaching of Venus flytraps "threatens the existence of this iconic but endangered carnivorous plant in the wild," writes John R. Platt at Scientific American. The haul of 970 plants is especially big considering that only 35,000 of them are thought to be growing in the wild—mostly in a 75-mile radius around Wilmington, NC. Plenty of Venus flytraps exist in greenhouses, and they're relatively easy to cultivate there, "but the wild plants can’t survive many more big poaching events like this one," writes Platt. Wildlife experts will try to replant the recovered plants in the same area from which they were taken. (A particular type of female fern can turn its neighbor into a male.)