The saguaro cactus is an iconic symbol of the Sonoran Desert regions of southern Arizona and Mexico and an essential plant for desert wildlife.
However, wildfires that burn down 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 help replace the many saguaros burned in the wildfires, the Tucson Audubon Society is launching 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 cavities of saguaro cacti, including elven owls, pygmy owls and desert violets. martins, among others.
Saguaros are like living quarters of wildlife activities. Bats feed on the nectar of the flowers that grow at the top of the saguaro, while in other parts of the plant, species of birds live inside cavities dug by other birds. Then, as food sources become scarce later in the summer, animals and insects feed on the saguaro fruit, according to the National Park Service.
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The entire project will receive an initial investment of $300,000 which will be provided to the organization over the next three years by the Wilderness Conservation Society. The project will also receive US Forest Service grants of approximately $209,000 for fire recovery in areas burned during the Bighorn Fire that occurred in the Santa Catalina Mountains and the bush that occurred in the Tonto National Forest in 2020.
Jonathan Horst, director of conservation and research for Tucson Audubon, said the project will involve working with growers to cultivate saguaros for their first two years, when the plant is most vulnerable in the wild. . Once the saguaros have thorns to protect themselves, they will be planted in the ground.
In the wild, saguaros are a slow-growing plant that is unlikely to survive and grow into a seedling, let alone grow to maturity, according to the National Park Service.
A saguaro takes 150 years to mature.
And after a wildfire, 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 is no room for white-winged doves or other saguaro fruit-eating birds to land and excrete saguaro seeds and their “fertilizer packet” or guano under a tree, Horst said.
For a saguaro seed to become established or survive beyond its first growth stage, it is essential that the saguaro seeds fall under a “nurturer tree” that protects the young cacti from animals and extreme temperatures, a he explained.
In “fire recovery, the timeline goes from being very long and slow for normal settlement in a healthy Sonoran Desert setting to being ridiculously long as the chances of the seed getting there diminishes,” Horst said.
Even without the challenges of wildfires, Horst said saguaros need specific conditions to survive.
Facing challenges to survive
He compared the odds of a saguaro seed establishing itself in the right conditions to the likelihood of someone successfully “throwing darts in the dark while blindfolded and with both hands tied behind their back and the target is on the other side of a concrete wall”.
First, for a seed to become established, it takes two wet monsoon seasons with a wet winter in between, Horst said. The next challenge is for the young saguaros to survive to adulthood.
For the first two years, they are smaller than candy without any protection and extremely vulnerable, he said.
Horst noted that in June and sometimes April, when much of the vegetation has shrunk except for the cacti, the animals seek out any moist food source, making young saguaros the perfect snack.
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Therefore, for young saguaros to survive and reach maturity, the monsoon season must be wet enough to allow vegetation to grow so that wildlife will eat other green plants rather than the juicy young saguaros, a-t -he declares.
“They only survive if it’s not too dry that there are still other delicious things to eat in the desert,” he said.
During the project, to keep the saguaros from being eaten, Horst said the saguaros will be planted when they have developed thorns for protection and when the desert vegetation is greenest.
Currently, the organization is trying to bring together a group of regional experts to plan where to do the replanting and restoration, Horst said.
Horst listed several factors that should be considered before determining where to replant succulents.
Although the selection of areas ravaged by wildfires is a priority, other areas most needed by the bird species and wildlife that rely on saguaros should also be considered.
Additionally, experts need to determine where saguaros will need to be in the future to thrive, as climate change is causing conditions in the Sonoran Desert to change.
He noted that the desert is expected to get drier with less precipitation and have more cold winter frosts at higher elevations. Knowing where saguaros want to be in the future will determine where the species that depend on them will be, he said.
“It’s an intentional way to adapt to these anticipated climate changes to ensure that all 14 species of birds and the hundreds of insects that depend on them can have mature saguaros that exist long into the future,” he said. he declared.
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 weeds that grow near saguaros not only compete with seedlings for water, but are highly flammable, which is bad news for neighboring saguaros, which have not adapted to the fires. of forest and do not support the high temperatures of the fires.
The Tucson Audubon has already planted 36 saguaros, with 460 waiting to be planted in the fall.
For other saguaros, the organization is working with a local grower to grow 8,000 seedlings over the next two years, Horst said, adding that additional one- to three-year-old saguaros will be purchased from local growers to be planted there. ‘next year.
Horst said he expects the replanting project to survive the three-year delay.
“It’s far too important,” he said.
Sacred to Indigenous Cultures
While saguaros have key ecological importance in southern Arizona, Horst also highlighted their socio-cultural and economic importance.
As previously reported by The Arizona Republic, the saguaro fruit has traditionally been a 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 to the health of the desert ecosystem and diverse communities.
The saguaro “provides unparalleled services throughout its life cycle to many species of birds, mammals, insects and resilience of the desert ecosystem”, he said, adding that the succulent also provides socio-cultural 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 to Tucson’s tourism industry where people flock from around 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 says.
Tucson is flanked on both sides by Saguaro National Park where visitors can find themselves in saguaro forests, Evans said.
“We are inundated with it all around us,” she said of the 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 non-profit organization Report for America in association with The Republic.
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