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PORTLAND, Maine – Sticky-fingered thieves are stealing the sap right out of Maine’s maple trees.

With little more than a spoutlike 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.

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

And Maine’s sap thefts are small potatoes compared with heists that have been reported elsewhere. Thieves last fall stole nearly $20 million worth of syrup from a Quebec warehouse.

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

Violators often use oversized drill bits to drill holes for the taps, Liba said. They’re also using PVC piping that gouges the trees, and putting four taps in trees that should have only two, thereby creating stress on the trees.

“If you’re talking dozens of trees with illegal taps that have suddenly been lowered potentially to firewood, the impact on the landowner’s wallet could be in the thousands,” Liba said.