In a new move to protect the state’s iconic plant, Saguaro National Park plans to monitor cactus nurseries to prevent the buying and selling of stolen saguaros from the park.
“It’s a pretty big thing for somebody to steal our namesake from the national park,” said law enforcement ranger Steve Bolyard.
In 2009, park staff began inserting Passive Integrated Transponder, or PIT, tags into saguaro cactuses to deter cactus thieves. Park employees tagged saguaros in the park for two years, though the staff would not disclose how many saguaros were tagged.
“If you think about how a dog gets a microchip, it’s the same kind of technology,” said park ranger Andy Fisher. “We are doing the same kind of thing with cactus in a consistent location.”
A special scanner can be used to pick up the signal from the body of each tagged cactus, she said.
Law enforcement rangers have not caught any cactus thieves since before the program began, Bolyard said.
“We want it to be a deterrent,” Fisher said. “We know we’re never going to be able to tag every single cactus out there.”
The park hopes to expand the tagging program by partnering with local nurseries and having volunteers scan inventories to make sure they do not have tagged cactuses, Fisher said.
The program would “help folks recognize when you’ve got a responsible nurseryman, and that’s where you want to be purchasing your cactus,” she said.
Saguaros and other native plants are important for drawing tourism. A study by Michigan State University concluded that Saguaro National Park brought in $21.9 million from tourism to the local economy in 2011.
Saguaros also support wildlife such as woodpeckers, owls, hawks and other birds, which use holes for nests. Rabbits, deer, bighorn sheep and some birds eat the flesh, according to the national park.
On state or private land, the Arizona Native Plant Law protects saguaros and other native plant species, and getting a label and permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture is the only way to legally move a saguaro, unless a landowner moves the plant within his or her properties and does not sell it, said Deke Austin of the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
But in Saguaro National Park and other national parks, it is illegal to disturb or remove any plant or animal, dead or alive, Bolyard said.
“It seems about every time you put a fence around something to protect it, somebody wants to come in and steal it,” Bolyard said.
Plant nurseries that grow or sell saguaros and other native plants are on the front line for protecting the park’s tagged cactuses that might be stolen, as well as cactuses that have state permits.
Most nurseries are good places to buy cultivated native plants, Austin said.
“If somebody comes in with a saguaro that’s just random, then we won’t buy it,” said Kyle Smith, manager of Desert Gardens Nursery in Phoenix, which buys and sells native plants. Several native plant growers and retailers in the Phoenix and Tucson areas share this sentiment, based on interviews.
Currently, there is no certification for nurseries to prove they are not selling stolen cactuses or other native plants.
When buying cactuses, Smith looks for the special label and valid permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture, he said.
If saguaros that do not have labels, permits or receipts, it is unknown if they have been stolen.
“If someone pulls up in a flatbed truck out in a parking lot, for example, and they have half a dozen large cacti out there that are bare-root sitting in the back there, that’s very suspicious,” said Preston Sands, retail manager at B&B Cactus Farm in Tucson, the first plant nursery the park plans to partner with to scan saguaros.
Stealing a saguaro or other mature cactus is no easy task, as a 10-foot saguaro could weigh about 1,000 pounds, he said.
“If you can imagine a 10-foot cucumber, how much that thing would weigh, that’s basically what a cactus is inside,” he said. “It’s this very dense water-filled tissue.”
Stolen saguaros may survive a move, but it depends on how they are dug up and cared for, and it may take one or two years before any damage is noticeable, Sands said.
Stealing a native plant that is protected is considered a felony, according to the Arizona Department of Agriculture.
For landscapers and property owners who want to buy native cactuses, Sands recommends getting to know a grower personally and looking for signs of a verifiable business.
He also suggests looking for signs of age.
“A lot of (wild plants) will have kind of an older appearance around the spines around the base, Sands said. “They look more rough than a lot of the showplace plants that nurseries can produce.”
If a cactus looks wild, customers should ask to see the permit or look for a Department of Agriculture label tied to a string around each plant.
Saguaro National Park plans to have formal partnerships with plant nurseries around Tucson so buyers know which nurseries are not selling stolen saguaros from the park, Fisher said.
Landowners can contact the Arizona Department of Agriculture to obtain a permit and tag to remove or transport a protected plant species.
Ann Posegate is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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