Saguaro National Park Using New Technology to Deter Cactus Rustlers

Placing a PIT tag into a cactus is a quick and easy process. Photo by Jim Burnett.

Saguaro National Park is using some new technology to help deter an old-time problem—cactus poachers. Operation PIT Tag inserts tiny micro-chips into cacti to allow positive identification of saguaro cacti which have been heisted from the park. The program makes those plants less attractive targets for rustlers, since it's easy to verify that a tagged cactus is "stolen goods."

A prickly cactus may seem an unlikely target for theft, but the multi-armed saguaro is an iconic symbol of the American southwest—and a prized landscape item in parts of Arizona and adjoining states. That "curb appeal" makes saguaros a target for crooks who sell the purloined cacti to nurseries and landscape contractors, and as the population continues to grow in areas such as Tucson and Phoenix, there's plenty of demand for native landscaping.

Market Demand Tempts Thieves

A quick Google search will turn up plenty of vendors, including companies who will even haul and install saguaros in locations far outside their native range. Most legitimate landscapers try to be careful about sources for their plants, but saguaros are no different than any other product for which there's a steady demand, and public lands in southern Arizona are attractive targets for thieves hoping to make a quick buck.

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Saguaro are a popular landscape items throughout the Tucson area. Photo by Ken Lund via Creative Commons.

Part of the problem is inherent in the nature of the plants. Saguaros are very slow-growing; after 15 years the cactus may be only a foot tall, and a seven-footer may be about 50 years of age. The large, showy flowers don’t appear until a plant is around 35 years old, and it can take as long as 75 years for the prized "arms" that give a saguaro its signature shape to form. A multi-armed giant is likely more than a century old, and weighs several tons.

Thieves have occasionally dug up saguaros in the park and hauled them away, but rangers have also had some success in catching and prosecuting violators. Two poachers who were apprehended received hefty sentences in 2009, but it took some determined work by rangers and prosecutors to prove in court that the stolen goods came from park property.

Technology As A Deterrent

Thanks to a tiny electronic marvel, establishing the point of origin will now be a lot easier in cases involving heists of cacti from Saguaro National Park. With financial support from the Friends of Saguaro National Park, cacti in a variety of sizes and locations throughout the park are being implanted with PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tags.

The small electronic "tags" have been used in recent years to help monitor and identify many kinds of animals, ranging from pets and valuable race horses to wild mammals, birds and even fish. They're also an ideal solution for establishing positive identification of valuable cacti.

So... what's a PIT tag?

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The PIT tag implanted in a cactus is tiny indeed. Photo by Jim Burnett

It's a small "chip" that can send a unique individual code to a hand-held receiver, or "reader." The term "passive" in the tag's name refers to the absence of a battery or transmitter in the tag itself; a low-frequency signal sent from a reader "excites" the circuitry in the tag, and the reader receives a unique code back from the tag. Since there is no battery to wear out and the glass-encased tag is protected from moisture, it's believed the chips could last for 75 years or more.

A small, hand-held "implant gun" makes quick work of placing the tag into a cactus, and the resulting tiny hole on the surface of the saguaro is almost impossible to detect.

The Tags Have Multiple Benefits

Benefits from the PIT tag program go far beyond theft deterrence. When a cactus is tagged, it's also photographed and measured, and its location is noted using a GPS device. There's considerable interest in the scientific community about the health and numbers of saguaro populations, and the data gathered as part of the chip program will provide valuable inventory and monitoring information for decades to come.

Following the successful prosecution of cactus thieves in 2009, Bob Love, the park's Chief Ranger noted, "People in the Tucson area are passionate about their saguaros. That interest in protecting the natural resources and the beauty of the area was also reflected in the support from prosecutors."

Thanks to Operation PIT Tag, it will be much easier for prosecutors and rangers to make a case against crooks who are foolish enough to remove a tagged saguaro from the park. There's been good media coverage of the program in southern Arizona, which helps increase the deterrence value—and that's a key goal for this effort.

When it comes to protecting both individual cacti and the overall park resources, preventing thefts is clearly preferable to solving cases after the damage is done. Plant poachers have been put on notice: Thanks to these tiny chips, attempts to heist cacti from the park can result in a call of "Tag…you're out."

Comments

It does not seem like a good idea to publicize the specific technology being used. PIT tag scanners are easy to come by. All a thief would need to do would be to scan the cactus and bore a tiny hole to remove the tag.

Great article, except the perpetuating error of spelling in "Tuscon" rather than "Tucson" such as in the photo caption: "Saguaro are a popular landscape items throughout the Tuscon area. Photo by Ken Lund via Creative Commons."

So many words, so few copyeditors....:(

re: I'm a Tucsonian - Sorry about the typos on the name of your city!

Re: Ranger's comment about publicizing the technology being used. A valid concern; I consulted with the park before running the story. They've been successful in getting a lot of media coverage on the program, both locally and across the country, to maximize the deterrence value.

After watching an "implant," it appears the tags are inserted deeply enough that it would take some serious digging in that tough cactus to remove a chip, and the resulting wound would likely seriously reduce the commercial value.

These are just RFID tags. They're similar to a lot of tags currently used for inventory control in stores. Some credit cards use them too, as do current US passports and passport cards.

Basically they receive the energy from a specific radio frequency that's turned into electricity, much like how a solar panel turns light (which is EM radiation like radio waves) into electricity. Once they're "on", they then broadcast back a repeating code.

It might be possible to disable one of these things, but it would take a lot of effort. I've heard of people trying to microwave RFID tags. Doing that to a plant would be foolish. It would probably kill plant tissue and leave a nasty scar. Also - applying concentrated microwaves outside of a contained area like a microwave over could cause burns to whoever is doing this.