Rustling “Ain’t What It Used to Be”
THEY used to come on horseback, carrying rifles and six-guns, and stealing cattle. Now they come in pickup trucks, armed with shovels, and they rustle cactuses. Rustlers in the old wild West were hanged when caught, but the modern breed of rustler draws a lighter sentence, though the damage he does is more serious. The motive is the same—money.
The thieves ride across the deserts of the American Southwest and dig up cactus plants until their pickups or vans are full, then peddle these to nurseries and homeowners for landscaping. The only winners, if they aren’t caught, are the cactus rustlers. Even if they are caught, the price for one plant can pay the fine. The buyer loses. The plant he buys may die in a few months. The desert loses the plants that hold its precious soil in place. The wildlife living there suffers and dies out as the habitats are destroyed. The public loses the beauty of the deserts as vacationlands. Future generations are denied the pleasure of the hundreds of varieties of plants, animals and birds that are slowly disappearing.
The saguaros, one type of cactus that rustlers love to steal, can bring as much as $1,000 (U.S.). But without the saguaros it is estimated that half of all species of birds in Arizona’s Sonora Desert could not survive. Buyers as far away as New York, Europe and Japan pay as much as $40 (U.S.) a foot and more for certain types of cactus. The transplanted cactus may look healthy for months, but removed from its natural habitat it does not survive many years.
Cactus grows slowly. Some take 100 years to reach full size, but in a few minutes it is dug up. Plants are being removed from the desert faster than they can be replenished. Add to this the recreation vehicles and motorcycles that roar across these lands tearing up the plants and thin soil, and the deserts themselves are put in jeopardy.
Arizona has had laws since 1929 protecting over 200 types of desert plants. However, with only a five-person task force to combat the cactus rustlers in the entire state, the depredations continue. In 1977 California passed plant protection laws for the deserts, but it is of little value since the state has only one ranger to patrol 5,000,000 acres of the Mojave Desert. The penalties are considered stiff—fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 (U.S.) and jail sentences of up to one year. But very few rustlers are caught, and cactus rustling continues to be big business.
For strong reasons, environmentalists and concerned citizens worry about the future of the desert and its plants and wildlife.