Poached red barrel cactus near Nelson’s Landing at Lake Mead, Nevada

What do you think of when you think of the desert southwest?  Does it conjure up visions of the old wild west?  Cactus, cowboys, cattle wranglers, and poachers?  Well, it’s not the 1800’s anymore, but we’ve still got wranglers and poachers.  Yes, a little bit of the wild west still clings to this place.

Unfortunately, the wrangling I’m going to talk about is not only illegal, but a real problem for the desert environment.  Cactus wrangling.  That’s right, I said cactus wrangling.  Now you probably don’t know anybody that’d be dumb enough to want to wrangle a cactus, but there’s quite a profit in it for these modern day poachers.

Silver Cholla in Nevada

Cactus wrangling or cactus poaching, involves “illegal take,” which is the harvest of native flora or fauna without the proper permits. The motives behind it can vary.  Some of the instigators just have a warped disrespect for things of the wild and get a kick out of yanking hundreds of years of plant life out of the ground. Larger specimens of cactus and yucca can be up to 500 years old.

Red Barrel Cactus in Nevada

Some vandals have a more utilitarian purpose in mind.  Barrel cactus is prized for the pulp that makes a special candy. But you would think that there would be a better way to “harvest the crop” than lopping tops entirely off and leaving the rest to rot.   Then there are the poachers who are practiced thieves, digging an entire specimen cactus like a saguaro for a landscape accent, and make quite a living off of it. Other cactus thieves are obsessive collectors of plant material and look for that unique species, already rare in its natural habitat. Finally, there are the vandals who can honestly claim ignorance as an excuse.

Cottontop Cactus in Nevada

The plants’ removal from the wild does have an effect on population ecology, and the environment’s fragile capacity to recover from disturbance. In addition, the survival of some transplanted specimens is not easily accomplished.  Some are placed in an urban environment and don’t receive the proper care.  Others, like a branched saguaro, may be a hundred or more years old, and when put in the Mojave versus their native Sonoran climate, are doomed to perish.

Scarlet Hedgehog Cactus in Nevada

How can these desert crimes be countered?  The National Park Service has had a lot of dealings with these crimes.  They have a tracking system, using microchips inserted in the cactus, and are able to track the origin of poached plants, if they show up in the resale market.  The punishment for these crimes can include confiscation of plants, fines and/or jail time for each offense.  Unfortunately, if plants are simply vandalized, there is no retribution.  Probably the most important deterrent is the presence of law enforcement – cactus rangers, if you will. Most southwestern states have native plant laws in force. Education is the next best deterrent. Once people learn the impressive survival skills of these sentinels of the American deserts, they will see the need to protect them.

Beavertail Cactus in Nevada

So what can the common person do to help?  Avoid trafficking in illegal plants! Here are some tips I wrote for the Nevada Department of Agriculture and Nevada Division of Forestry when I worked in the plant regulatory business:

If you’re a gardener, buy your specimens from a licensed nursery.  Be wary of folks selling native plants off the back of a truck or at a swap meet.  Look for legitimate cactus or native flora tags, which should be placed on legally-collected plants put up for sale.  Most southwestern states have tags and seals that they affix to the plants.  If the tag looks really old, it may have been reused.  Always get a bill of sale.  Be suspicious if the dealer doesn’t want to give you one.  You can always call your state department of agriculture or natural resources to see if a seller is legitimate.  For small specimens, check if they were wild-collected or commercially propagated.  Also, consider the native habitat of the plant you are buying.  Will it survive where you intend to plant it?

Old Man Prickly Pear in Nevada

If you’re a cactus collector, please procure your specimens legally!  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not legal for folks to just go dig up a cactus out of the desert, even if it seems like there would be plenty of them left.  Cactus harvesting is an activity that requires licenses and permits.  You need to find out whose land you are on and get their permission (some land agencies do not give permission for harvests), then apply for a license from the state agency that regulates native flora (if they require one).  Usually an inspector checks to see if the harvest is warranted, and will issue tags.  Shipping permits may also be required to transport the plants across state borders.  Shipping plants internationally may require a CITES permit.

Pincushion Cactus in Nevada

After you’ve procured your specimen, you’re not obligated to keep the official tag on the plant.  Tags left on plants for years are of course going to degrade with the weather.  It’s better to file it away with your bill of sale, just in case anyone ever questions the legality of it.

Finally, some exemptions are made for scientific and educational purposes, but don’t assume you qualify – again, check the laws and make a formal application.  If cactus, yucca, and other native desert plants are obtained legally, we can all enjoy the beauty of the desert’s flora for years to come.  It’s also a good idea to educate kids about native plants, too, because it teaches them respect for the fragile desert environment.

Pencil Cholla in Nevada


California Desert Native Plants Act


Arizona Native Plant Laws


Nevada Native Plant Laws


The Ethics of Native Plant Acquisition in Texas and New Mexico https://elpaso.tamu.edu/files/2011/10/Plant-Acquisition-Ethics1.pdf