It is known as “saguaro poaching” and usually occurs in Arizona mostly during housing booms.
That is how state and Pinal County land management officials characterize the problem of thieves stealing the protected cactus, whose blossom is Arizona’s state flower.
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 property.
Thieves find a market for the poached saguaros through nurseries in and out of state and shady landscape contractors.
However, authorities say saguaro thefts haven’t been a major problem since the 2009 recession put a damper on home building. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has not investigated a case of saguaro theft since an incident at Ironwood Forest National Monument two years ago.
BLM spokesman Dennis Godfrey said thefts tend to happen in cycles. He added high activity of residential development typically parallels higher cactus thefts due to landscapers looking to populate neighborhoods with saguaros.
The U.S. Forest Service also has noticed an association between housing booms and theft increases. Kathie Schmidlin, a spokeswoman with the federal agency, said reports of saguaro poaching were more common in Arizona’s national forests before the economic recession around 2009.
Schmidlin added that poaching is now “not a big concern” at Tonto National Forest, located northeast of Phoenix. Forest rangers regularly survey the grounds for poachers but are not always able to cover the forest’s 3 million acres.
However, with the residential market starting to rebound, officials plan to be vigilant.
Rangers typically depend on public visitors to help report suspicious activity of theft or vandalism.
Pinal County is home to two national monuments set aside by the federal government to protect large tracts of desert land and vegetation. The Ironwood monument encompasses 129,000 acres south of Red Rock, while the Sonoran Desert National Monument west of Casa Grande protects 487,000 acres in both Pinal and Maricopa counties. The monument is bisected by Interstate 8, providing many access points for potential cactus poachers. Both monuments are managed by the BLM.
Distinctive Earthscapes at the Avocado Nursery on North Overfield Road near Casa Grande always verifies saguaros residents try selling. Though the nursery typically grows its own cactuses, it will check whether a saguaro is coming from a resident’s property, a spokesman said.
The nursery also requests that a resident switch over the cactus permit issued by the state’s Department of Agriculture when making a sale.