Implanted radio chips help park rangers protect precious cactus from poachers

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Theft in the Wild West goes back for centuries, but it’s not often you think of the landscape itself being stolen — in this case, the saguaro cactus, the jaunty, multi-armed icon of Arizona that turns out to be a desired addition to many homeowners’ front yards.

But the thefts do happen, and faced with seeing saguaros disappear from federal lands, Saguaro National Park came up with a modern solution: radio frequency chips.

With the territory so vast and little chance of catching thieves in the act, land managers insert tiny chips into cactus bodies so they can track them down if stolen.

“We’ve literally chipped hundreds of saguaros we think are in at-risk areas — the size and location that could put them at a high risk of being poached,” said Paul Austin, chief ranger at Saguaro National Park, who said cactus poaching has declined since chipping began about five years ago. He added, however, that the park is not ready to reach the conclusion that the credit belongs to chipping.

“We have not seen as much evidence of cactus poaching, but also realizing over the last couple years there are a few other things that could be impacting that,” he said.

Saguaros are native to southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. They can grow to 200 years old and may not even sprout their first arms until they are 75. Saguaro National Park, which stands on either side of Tucson, was set aside to protect the species, though the cacti grow on other federal and state lands and on private property.

The cacti are protected by federal and state laws that prohibit theft and vandalism — another problem facing the plants, particularly among youths who “tag” the saguaro with spray paint, the same way they would a wall. Others use the cacti for target practice.

Michael Reimer, a special investigator for the Arizona Agriculture Department, said vandalism has become the bigger problem. He said some youths recently mutilated a 25-foot cactus.

“The plant’s going to die probably, from what’s been done,” he said.

A young saguaro with no arms sprouted could sell in Arizona for about $1,000 but can fetch much more when shipped elsewhere. The value increases as a saguaro ages and grows more arms.

Saguaro thieves can face serious jail time.

In one recent case, federal prosecutors won a felony conviction against Kenneth Cobb of Scottsdale for taking saguaros from Bureau of Land Management property northwest of Phoenix. Cobb pleaded guilty this year to a Class C federal felony charge of theft of government property and a separate charge of violating the Endangered Species Act.

Cobb admitted taking eight saguaros, at a value of $2,000 each, and exporting two of them to Austria. He was ordered to serve jail time and pay restitution.

In the late 1980s, federal authorities went so far as to go undercover and set up a nursery to try to learn the identities of those who had been stealing saguaros. That four-year investigation netted 21 indictments.

Ranger Austin said not all of the cacti are chipped. The big ones are tough to move and a lot more noticeable if removed. Others are in areas where it’s tough to reach, so chipping isn’t economical.

The chips are chiefly deterrents — “it’s keeping the chip in people’s minds,” the ranger said — though he added that plans are in the works to visit nurseries and scan cacti to determine whether they have been chipped, and thus taken illegally.

Technology gives authorities another tool. Mr. Reimer said Google Earth lets authorities see what cacti were growing when photos were taken and whether something is missing.

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