Earth Notes - Cactus Rustling

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Cactus Rustling

Some of the Southwest's prickliest residents are also some of its most desirable. No, they're not people, but cacti, drought-loving succulents. Lots of people admire cacti wherever they grow, whether they're tiny hedgehogs or giant saguaros. But quite a few of these southwestern natives are even more popular out of place.

As a result, many types of cactus are at risk of theft. In the Sonoran Desert, saguaros as heavy as seven tons have been stolen by poachers with flatbed trucks. Arizona's emblems, which feed and house numerous animal species and take more than a century to reach their full height, yield $50 per foot, with an extra $100 per arm. Other smaller species can fetch up to $7,000 per specimen from avid collectors.

In extreme cases, poachers can wipe out entire populations of endangered cacti. Resource specialists at Lake Mead National Recreation Area have tried to deter or locate thieves, as well as monitor stolen plant numbers, by injecting some cacti with microchip transponders the size of rice grains.

But protection isn't the only solution to cactus rustling. At Mesa Garden, a collection of 14 greenhouses in Belen, New Mexico, entrepreneur Steven Brack raises 15,000 varieties of cacti and other succulents. After pollination by hand, their seeds are shipped to collectors.

By offering seeds and seedlings for sale, this prickly business offers an alternative source of cacti for collectors and landscapers and may be helping to save part of the Southwest's wild heritage.

-Michael Engelhard