The saguaro cactus is an iconic symbol of the Sonoran Desert areas of southern Arizona and Mexico and an important plant for desert wildlife.
However, wildfires burning areas of the state threaten these desert plants, which in turn threaten the lives of the birds and other wildlife that depend on them.
To replace the many saguaros burned in wildfires, the Tucson Audubon Society is beginning a three-year restoration and replanting project that will bring about 14,000 saguaros to southern Arizona.
According to Tucson Audubon, a nonprofit organization 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 martin , among other things.
Saguaros are like apartment buildings with wildlife activities. Bats feed on the nectar of the flowers that sprout atop the saguaro, while other parts of the plant are home to bird species in cavities carved by other birds. When food sources become scarce later in the summer, animals and insects will feed on the fruit of the saguaro, according to the National Park Service.
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The entire project will receive an initial investment of US$300,000, which will be made available to the organization by the Wilderness Conservation Society over the next three years. The project will also receive approximately $209,000 in US Forest Service grants for postfire recovery in areas burned during the Bighorn Fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains and the Bush Fire in Tonto National Forest in 2020 were set on fire.
Jonathan Horst, director of conservation and research for Tucson Audubon, said the project will involve working with breeders to grow saguaros in the first two years, when the plant is most vulnerable in the wild. Once the saguaros have spikes to protect themselves, they are planted in the ground.
In nature, saguaros are a slow-growing plant that has little chance of surviving and becoming a seedling, and even less chance of growing to maturity, according to the National Park Service.
It takes a saguaro 150 years to mature.
And after a wildfire, the saguaros’ chances of surviving to maturity become even more difficult if nearby trees or adult saguaros have been burned, Horst said.
When the trees are burned, there is no place for white-winged doves or other saguaro-eating birds to land and excrete saguaro seeds and their “fertilizer pack,” or guano, under a tree, Horst said.
In order for a saguaro seed to establish or survive its initial growth phase, it’s crucial that saguaro seeds fall under a “nurse tree,” which protects the young cacti from animals and extreme temperatures, he explained.
In “fire recovery, the timeframe goes from really long and slow for normal establishment in a healthy Sonoran Desert context to ridiculously long because the likelihood of the seed getting there goes down,” Horst said.
Even without the challenges of wildfires, Horst said saguaros need certain conditions to survive.
Face challenges to survive
He compared the likelihood of a saguaro seed establishing itself 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 on the other side.” a concrete wall”.
First, it takes two wet monsoon seasons with a wet winter in between for a seed to become established, Horst said. The next challenge is for young saguaros to survive to adulthood.
For the first two years, without any protection, they are smaller than a gum bean and extremely vulnerable, he said.
Horst noted that during June and sometimes April, when much of the vegetation has dwindled down to cacti, animals will seek out any moisture-rich food source, making young saguaros the perfect snack.
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Therefore, for young saguaros to survive and mature, the monsoon season must be wet enough for vegetation to grow, so that wildlife eat other green plants and not the succulent, young saguaros, he said.
“They only survive if it’s not so dry that there are other goodies to eat in the desert,” he says.
To prevent saguaros from being eaten, Horst said during the project the saguaros are planted when they have developed spines for protection and when the desert vegetation is at its greenest.
The organization is currently trying to bring together a group of regional experts to plan where the replanting and restoration will take place, Horst said.
Horst listed several factors to consider before determining where to replant the succulents.
While selecting areas devastated by wildfires is a priority, other areas most needed by saguaro-dependent bird species and wildlife must also be considered.
Additionally, experts need to determine where saguaros will need to be in the future in order to thrive as climate change alters conditions in the Sonoran Desert.
He noted that the desert is expected to be drier with less precipitation and more winter cold snaps at higher elevations. Knowing where saguaros want to be in the future will determine where the species that rely on them will be, he said.
“It’s a deliberate adaptation to expected climate changes to ensure that the 14 species of birds and the hundreds of insects that rely on them are able to have mature saguaros that will exist long into the future,” he said he.
Planting saguaros is only part of the story, Horst said, adding that controlling invasive plants and replanting 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 are also highly flammable, which is bad news for neighboring saguaros that haven’t adapted to wildfires and the high ones cannot withstand the temperatures of the fires.
The Tucson Audubon has already planted 36 saguaros, with 460 waiting to be planted in the fall.
For the other saguaros, the organization is working with a local breeder to grow 8,000 seedlings over the next two years, Horst said, adding that additional saguaros between the ages of one and three years will be purchased from local breeders to grow next year plants.
Horst said he expects the replanting project to last the three-year deadline.
“It’s far too important,” he said.
Sacred to indigenous cultures
While saguaros are of central ecological importance in southern Arizona, Horst also highlighted their sociocultural and economic importance.
As previously reported by The Arizona Republic, the saguaro fruit is a traditionally vital food source for the Tohono O’odham and continues to hold a respected place in their culture.
Michael McDonald, CEO of Tucson Audubon, reiterated the importance of their restoration project to the health of the desert ecosystem and diverse communities.
The saguaro “renders unparalleled services to numerous bird, mammal, insect, and desert ecosystem resilience throughout its life cycle,” he said, adding that the succulent also benefits “many diverse communities, including the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O ‘, offers socio-cultural benefits. Odham and many other indigenous and non-indigenous communities.”
Saguaros are also important to Tucson’s tourism industry, where people from all over the world flock to see these iconic desert plants and the rare birds and animals that make use of them.
Megan Evans, communications director 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 either side by Saguaro National Park, where visitors can find themselves in saguaro forests, Evans said.
“We’re inundated with them all around us,” she said of saguaros. “That’s a big part of 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 partnership with The Republic.
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