Pro­tect­ing saguaro cac­tus a prickly task in Ari­zona

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DINAN

TUC­SON, ARIZ. | Theft in the Wild West goes back for cen­turies, but it’s not of­ten you think of the land­scape it­self be­ing stolen — in this case, the saguaro cac­tus, the jaunty, multi-armed icon of Ari­zona that turns out to be a de­sired ad­di­tion to many home­own­ers’ front yards.

But the thefts do hap­pen, and faced with see­ing saguaros dis­ap­pear from fed­eral lands, Saguaro Na­tional Park came up with a mod­ern so­lu­tion: ra­dio fre­quency chips.

With the ter­ri­tory so vast and lit­tle chance of catch­ing thieves in the act, land man­agers in­sert tiny chips into cac­tus bod­ies so they can track them down if stolen.

“We’ve lit­er­ally chipped hun­dreds of saguaros we think are in at-risk ar­eas — the size and lo­ca­tion that could put them at a high risk of be­ing poached,” said Paul Austin, chief ranger at Saguaro Na­tional Park, who said cac­tus poach­ing has de­clined since chip­ping be­gan about five years ago. He added, how­ever, that the park is not ready to reach the con­clu­sion that the credit be­longs to chip­ping.

“We have not seen as much ev­i­dence of cac­tus poach­ing, but also re­al­iz­ing over the last cou­ple years there are a few other things that could be im­pact­ing that,” he said.

Saguaros are na­tive to south­ern Ari­zona and Sonora, Mex­ico. They can grow to 200 years old and may not even sprout their first arms un­til they are 75. Saguaro Na­tional Park, which stands on ei­ther side of Tuc­son, was set aside to pro­tect the species, though the cacti grow on other fed­eral and state lands and on pri­vate prop­erty.

The cacti are pro­tected by fed­eral and state laws that pro­hibit theft and van­dal­ism — another prob­lem fac­ing the plants, par­tic­u­larly among youths who “tag” the saguaro with spray paint, the same way they would a wall. Oth­ers use the cacti for tar­get prac­tice.

Michael Reimer, a spe­cial in­ves­ti­ga­tor for the Ari­zona Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment, said van­dal­ism has be­come the big­ger prob­lem. He said some youths re­cently mu­ti­lated a 25-foot cac­tus.

“The plant’s go­ing to die prob­a­bly, from what’s been done,” he said.

A young saguaro with no arms sprouted could sell in Ari­zona for about $1,000 but can fetch much more when shipped else­where. The value in­creases as a saguaro ages and grows more arms. Saguaro thieves can face se­ri­ous jail time. In one re­cent case, fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors won a felony con­vic­tion against Ken­neth Cobb of Scotts­dale for tak­ing saguaros from Bureau of Land Man­age­ment prop­erty north­west of Phoenix. Cobb pleaded guilty this year to a Class C fed­eral felony charge of theft of gov­ern­ment prop­erty and a sep­a­rate charge of vi­o­lat­ing the En­dan­gered Species Act.

Cobb ad­mit­ted tak­ing eight saguaros, at a value of $2,000 each, and ex­port­ing two of them to Aus­tria. He was or­dered to serve jail time and pay resti­tution.

In the late 1980s, fed­eral au­thor­i­ties went so far as to go un­der­cover and set up a nurs­ery to try to learn the iden­ti­ties of those who had been steal­ing saguaros. That four-year in­ves­ti­ga­tion net­ted 21 in­dict­ments.

Ranger Austin said not all of the cacti are chipped. The big ones are tough to move and a lot more no­tice­able if re­moved. Oth­ers are in ar­eas where it’s tough to reach, so chip­ping isn’t eco­nom­i­cal.

The chips are chiefly de­ter­rents — “it’s keep­ing the chip in peo­ple’s minds,” the ranger said — though he added that plans are in the works to visit nurs­eries and scan cacti to de­ter­mine whether they have been chipped, and thus taken il­le­gally.

Tech­nol­ogy gives au­thor­i­ties another tool. Mr. Reimer said Google Earth lets au­thor­i­ties see what cacti were grow­ing when pho­tos were taken and whether some­thing is miss­ing.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHOTOGRAPHS

The saguaro cac­tus grows only in the Sono­ran Desert in south­ern Ari­zona and Mex­ico. It flow­ers in late spring.

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