One of the most recognized symbols of the American desert is the saguaro cactus, and that fact makes those multi-armed giants attractive targets for thieves. A tip from a concerned citizen, excellent work by rangers at Saguaro National Park and great cooperation from the U. S. Attorney's office have resulted in hefty sentences for two cactus poachers who were caught with the goods.
Saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea) only grow naturally in a portion of the Sonoran Desert, including parts of southern Arizona, a corner of southeastern California and a narrow strip of northern Mexico. Their distinctive size and shape make them recognizable all over the world, and the plants are prized as landscape features.
The impressive plants are slow-growing: those iconic "arms" don't develop until the plants are about fifty to seventy years of age or even older. A saguaro is considered an adult when it reaches 125 years or so, and the average life span is believed to be about 150 to 175 years. Good specimens may weigh 6 tons or more and be as tall as 50 feet.
Saguaro are difficult to propagate, and thieves typically target plants that are about forty years old, and five to seven feet in height. Cacti of that size are easy to transport, and a single saguaro can fetch hundreds of dollars when sold to nurseries or landscapers. These days, you'll even find saguaro advertised for sale on sites such as Craigslist.
Theft of cacti has been a major problem for decades. A news report from 1980 quotes a state official who estimated that 250,000 desert plants had been illegally dug and sold in Arizona alone in 1979, and pressures on desert ecosystems have continue to mount. Years of population growth and development of new subdivisions in the West have fueled a growing demand for native landscaping.
The problem of plant poaching isn't limited to public lands. A comment last year on a TV station blog described the activity as "rampant" in parts of the West, and suggested that homeowners with nice cacti specimens in their yards make sure they had insurance to cover such losses.
There's no law against the sale of the plants in Arizona, as long as they're removed legally from private property and the proper permit has been obtained from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Some folks are always looking for a quick buck, of course, and a chance to bypass the legal market, and the prime specimens of cacti in places like Saguaro National Park are a tempting target.
Plants in the park are protected by both state and federal law, and those regulations were put to good use in a recent case at Saguaro NP, which is located on the outskirts of Tucson.
In January 2007, a local resident notified park authorities that someone had dug up 17 saguaros and stashed them near a road along the NPS boundary. That's a common technique used by plant poachers, who then return later to haul the plants away.
Rangers confirmed that two of the plants had come from NPS property; the remainder had been removed from county land between the park boundary and the road. The area was staked out, and those efforts were rewarded when two men arrived to pick up their plunder.
Gregory James McKee and Joseph Tillman were apprehended and eventually charged with violations of the Lacey Act, which "prohibits trafficking in plants and animals collected in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States or in violation of any Indian tribal law."
Both men entered guilty pleas, and the case has now been concluded. In October, U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins sentenced Tillman to eight months in federal prison. His co-defendant McKee was sentenced recently to six months of home confinement and 100 hours of community service. Upon completion of those sentences, both defendants will be placed on supervised release for a term of 36 months.
“This activity will not be taken lightly,” stated Dennis K. Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona. “Indeed, this is one of the longest sentences ever for cactus-rustling in this District. Creative landscaping is no excuse to plunder natural treasures from our national parks.”
Robert Love is the Chief Ranger at Saguaro National Park, and he commented on the importance of the citizen's tip and the attitude of many area residents about protection of the cacti.
"People in the Tucson area are passionate about their saguaros," he noted. That interest in protecting the natural resources and the beauty of the area was also reflected in the support from prosecutors. "We had tremendous cooperation from the U. S. Attorney's Office," Love said. "We had a great Assistant U.S. Attorney who was willing to work with us on this case."
After the sentencing was announced last week, Love noted,
“Saguaros have become a valuable commodity and are increasingly targeted by thieves and poachers. Sentences like the ones imposed on Tillman and McKee send a strong message to those who plunder our Nation’s natural resources.”