Threats to the Saguaro

young saguaro cactus

The saguaro is a long-lived cactus, most affected by long-term climate cycles of frost and drought. Reports of a saguaro "disease" popularized almost fifty years ago, but saguaros are not subject to blights. The saguaro is a common plant in the Sonoran Desert and is not an endangered species.

Without question, the biggest threat to the saguaro is our rapidly expanding human population. The development of new homes in the Tucson area has resulted in a tremendous loss of saguaro habitat.

habitat loss due to housing developement
With this influx of people has come another threat to the saguaro – exotic plants. Exotic plants almost always out-compete native plants for the limited resources of water and nutrients. Exotic plants – particularly buffelgrass, fountain grass, and red brome – have also led to an increase in wildfires in the desert, which harm or kill native vegetation, including the saguaro.
burnt saguaro
Mature saguaro on Mica View Trail

Saguaro and other cactus are not adapted to a fire regime, as fires did not regularly affect them in the past. Prior to the introduction of exotic grasses for cattle feed and landscaping, the native desert grasses were sparse and did not carry a fire far. Therefore a lightning strike would have caused only a small patch to burn before running out of fuel.

Other threats to the saguaro include vandalism, attempted transplant or theft of the cactus. The saguaro is one of many plants in Arizona protected by the Native Plant Protection Act, and within national park lands, the removal of any plant is illegal. Also, all land in the state is owned by somebody whether it is federal, state, tribal, or private.

initials carved into saguaro create open wound followed by scabbing for protection

To remove native plants from any land, permission must be granted by the landowner and a permit must be obtained from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. Homeowners wishing to move a saguaro (or any protected native plant) on their own property may also do so by obtaining the appropriate permit from the Arizona Department of Agriculture. [No affiliation with National Park Service.]

Keep in mind that saguaros less than about four feet tall have the best chance of surviving a transplant. Saguaros can be difficult to transplant successfully, requiring special care and also irrigation. Consult a plant expert for advice. Click here to read about saguaro root systems.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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