Although the Sonoran Desert might seem like a barren wasteland, it’s actually a delicate ecosystem that relies on important food webs and a predictable climate. All the plants and animals native to this desert have specially adapted to their environment and each other, often making the existence of a particular species essential to the health of the ecosystem. These species are often called keystone species because of their critical value to the environment. One such species is the Saguaro cactus, located only in the western United States within the Sonoran Desert. These cacti provide shelter, shade, food, and water for small animals, as well as contribute to the natural beauty of the desert. These animals need the Saguaro because the harsh climate of the desert does not allow for many resources to exist.
Regrettably, people have been cutting down and taking cacti from the desert, usually in an effort to populate their front yard with succulents. This practice is not only bad for the environment, but it’s also illegal in the state of Arizona, which is where most Saguaro are found. Those found attempting to transplant, destroy, or otherwise uproot the cactus are subject to a felony charge. This doesn’t stop people from stealing the crucial desert flora, sadly. In fact, cacti heists have become so profuse in Arizona that park officials have started to install microchips in especially iconic cacti to deter succulent swindlers. The microchips have the ability to send out signals that notify park officials when a cactus has been wrangled.
Directly moving cacti is not the only way people have been harming the Saguaro. Increasingly, wild fires have become a problem in the Sonoran Desert. Typically, wildfires don’t occur in the desert because of the lack of vegetation. If a fire were to start, it would burn out quickly before spreading because it would have nearly no fuel. With short grasses and shrubs added into desert by farmers, wild fires have become more of a problem in the southwest United States (although nowhere near as big of a scale as, say, the dry forests in California). Saguaro are especially vulnerable to wildfires because they have no defense against them as they have never experienced them before.
Thankfully, the Saguaro is not currently endangered, with its conservation status listed as being of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). That doesn’t mean people should be allowed to just meddle with them however they want, though. Regulation of the cactus exists because of how vital it is to the habitat of many plants and animals. Allowing them to be removed or destroyed could easily cause the cactus to plummet into endangered status, harming the rest of the desert with its decline. It should be well known at this point in ecological history that it’s not wise to wait until something is almost gone to protect it.
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© 2019 Weather Forecaster Cole Bristow