The saguaro cactus is an iconic symbol of Sonoran Desert areas in southern Arizona and Mexico and an essential plant for desert wildlife.
However, wildfires torching areas of the state are threatening these desert plants, which in turn threaten the lives of the birds and other wildlife that depend on them.
To help replace the many saguaros burned in wildfires, the Tucson Audubon Society is launching a three-year restoration and replanting project that will bring approximately 14,000 saguaros to southern Arizona.
According to the Tucson Audubon, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats,100 species of animals use saguaros including bats, birds, mammals and insects, while 14 species of birds nest in saguaro cactus cavities including elf owls, pygmy owls and desert purple martins, among others.
Saguaros are like apartment buildings of wildlife activity. Bats feed on the nectar of the flowers sprouting at the top of the saguaro, while in other parts of the plant, bird species live inside cavities carved by other birds. Then as food sources become scarce later in the summer, animals and insects will feed on the saguaro’s fruit, according to the National Park Service.
The entire project will receive an initial investment of $300,000 that will be given to the organization over the next three years from the Wilderness Conservation Society. The project also will receive U.S. Forest Service grants for around $209,000 for post-burn fire recovery in areas torched during the Bighorn fire that occurred in the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Bush fire that occurred in the Tonto National Forest in 2020.
Jonathan Horst, director of conservation and research for the Tucson Audubon, said the project will entail working with cultivators to grow saguaros for their first two years, during which the plant is the most vulnerable in the wild. Once the saguaros have spines to protect themselves, they will be planted in the ground.
In nature, saguaros are a slow-growing plant that have low chances of surviving and becoming a seedling, and even less chances of growing to maturity, according to the National Park Service.
A saguaro takes 150 years to become full grown.
And after a wildfire, the saguaros chances of surviving to maturity become even more difficult if nearby trees or mature saguaros have been burned, Horst said.
If the trees are burned, there’s no place for white-winged doves or other birds that eat saguaro fruit to land and excrete saguaro seeds and their “fertilizer pack” or guano under a tree, Horst said.
For a saguaro seed to establish or survive past its first growth phase, it is critical for saguaro seeds to fall under a “nurse tree” which protects the young cacti from animals and extreme temperatures, he explained.
In “postfire recovery, the timeline goes from being really long and slow for normal establishment in a healthy Sonoran Desert context to being ridiculously long, because the chance of the seed getting there go down,” Horst said.
Even without the challenges from wildfires, Horst said saguaros need specific conditions to survive.
Facing challenges to survive
He likened the chances of a saguaro seed establishing under the right conditions to the likelihood of someone successfully “throwing darts in the dark while blindfolded and both hands tied behind their back and the target is on the other side of a concrete wall.”
First, for a seed to establish it requires two wet monsoon seasons with a wet winter in between, Horst said. The next challenge is for young saguaros to survive until adulthood.
For the first two years, they are smaller than a jellybean without any protection and extremely vulnerable, he said.
Horst noted that during June and sometimes April, when much of the vegetation has shriveled up except for cacti, animals are looking for any food source with moisture, making young saguaros the perfect snack.
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Therefore, for young saguaros to survive and reach maturity, monsoon season must be wet enough to allow vegetation to grow so wildlife will eat other green plants rather than the juicy, young saguaros, he said.
“They only survive if it’s not so dry that there are still other yummy things to eat in the desert,” he said.
During the project, to prevent saguaros from being eaten, Horst said the saguaros will be planted when they have developed spines for protection and when desert vegetation is at its greenest.
Currently, the organization is trying to get a group of regional experts together to plan where to do the replanting and restoration, Horst said.
Horst listed multiple factors that must be taken into account before determining where to replant the succulents.
While choosing areas ravaged by wildfires is a priority, other areas most needed by the bird species and wildlife that depend on saguaros must also be taken into account.
In addition, experts must determine where saguaros will need to be in the future to thrive, as climate change causes Sonoran Desert conditions to shift.
He noted that the desert is expected to become drier with less rainfall and have more winter cold freezes at higher elevations. Knowing where saguaros will want to be in the future will determine where the species that rely on them are going to be, he said.
“It’s an intentional way to adapt to those anticipated climate shifts to make sure that the 14 bird species and the hundreds of insects that rely on them are able have mature saguaros that exist long into the future,” he said.
Planting saguaros is only one part of the story, Horst said, adding that invasive plant control and the replanting of native grasses will also be included in the project.
According to the National Park Service, invasive grasses that grow near saguaros not only compete with the seedlings for water, but they are highly flammable, which is bad news for neighboring saguaros, which have not adapted to wildfires and cannot stand fires’ high temperatures.
The Tucson Audubon already has planted 36 saguaros, with 460 waiting to be planted in the fall.
For the other saguaros, the organization is working with a local cultivator to grow 8,000 seedlings over the next two years, Horst said, adding that additional saguaros between the ages of one and three will be purchased from local growers for planting next year.
Horst said he expects the replanting project to outlive the three-year timeline.
“It’s way too important,” he said.
Sacred to indigenous cultures
While saguaros have a key ecological importance in southern Arizona, Horst highlighted their sociocultural and economic importance as well.
As previously reported by The Arizona Republic, the saguaro fruit is a traditionally vital food source for the Tohono O’odham and continues to have a respected place in their culture.
Tucson Audubon CEO Michael McDonald reiterated the importance of their restoration project for the health of the desert ecosystem and diverse communities.
The saguaro “provides unparalleled services throughout its lifecycle to numerous bird, mammal, insect species and desert ecosystem resiliency,” he said, adding that the succulent also provides sociocultural benefits “to many diverse communities, including the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham and many other indigenous and non-indigenous communities.”
Saguaros are also important for Tucson’s tourism industry where people flock from all over the world to see these iconic desert plants and the rare birds and animals that use them.
Megan Evans, director of communications at Visit Tucson, said tourists come from all over the world to see saguaros in Tucson.
“It’s part of every visit,” she said.
Tucson is flanked on both sides by the Saguaro National Park where visitors can find themselves in saguaro forests, Evans said.
“We’re flooded with them all around us,” she said about saguaros. “It’s very much part of the reason why tourists come here,” she said.
Coverage of southern Arizona on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is funded by the nonprofit Report for America in association with The Republic.
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