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Thieves tapping Maine's maple staple

A photo released by the Maine Forest Rangers

A photo released by the Maine Forest Rangers shows an illegally tapped maple tree in northern Maine. Thieves are illegally tapping trees across Maine and stealing the sap that runs each spring that's used to make sweet maple syrup. Forest rangers say the illegal tappers are damaging valuable maple trees before they are harvested for lumber. (March 12, 2013) Credit: AP

Sticky-fingered thieves are stealing the sap right out of Maine's maple trees.

With little more than a spout-like tap and a bucket, people are looting the liquid out of trees on private property and hauling it away to turn into sweet maple syrup.

There's been an increase in reported sap thefts the past couple of years, but Maine Forest Service rangers aren't sure why. "It could be that landowners are more willing to contact us. But it also may be that more people are venturing out into the woods to try their hand at this," Ranger Thomas Liba said.

Syrup is big business in Maine between late February and mid-April, when conditions are just right for sugar makers to extract sap from maples and boil it down to syrup over wood fires. The state last year produced 360,000 gallons, tying it with New York as the No. 2 syrup-producing state. Vermont, the top state, produced 750,000 gallons.

At $50 a gallon or more on the retail level, Maine-made syrup is pricey, selling for 13 times the price of gasoline. It has not been showing an upward trend in recent years.

Syrup-related thefts are nothing new. Just this week, a Vermont syrup-maker reported the theft of equipment from his sugarhouse.

And Maine's sap thefts are small potatoes compared with syrup heists reported elsewhere. Thieves last fall stole nearly $20 million worth of syrup from a Quebec warehouse that stocked thousands of barrels of the amber liquid.

Still, the thefts raise the hackles of rangers and landowners alike: The swindlers aren't just trespassing, they're damaging valuable trees.

Violators often use large drill bits and PVC piping that gouges the trees, and put four taps in trees that should have only two, creating undue stress on the trees.

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