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Feds Propose Imperiled Cacti for Protection

October 2, 2012
Mark Salvo msalvo@wildearthguardians.org
In This Release
Wildlife   Acuña cactus, Fickeisen plains cactus
Washington, DC – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) announced today that it will propose to list the acuña cactus (Echinomastus erectocentrus acunensis) and Fickeisen plains cactus (Pediocactus peeblesianus fickeiseniae) as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and to designate critical habitat for both species. These Arizona cacti have been candidates for listing for more than 30 years. The Service identified habitat loss and degradation, drought, and predation by insects as primary threats to the species.

“We commend the Service for recognizing and acting on the continuing threats to these rare plants,” said Mark Salvo, Wildlife Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “Thirty years is long enough to wait for federal protection.”

Acuña Cactus

This stocky plant grows to about 16 inches tall, with maroon spines and lavender, rose, or pink flowers in spring. It is found on gravel ridges and knolls in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (OPCNM) lost 95 percent of its acuña cactus population across 1000 acres of habitat between 1991 and 2010. The acuña cactus also occurs on less than one acre near Ajo, Arizona, but the site is littered with broken glass, crossed by old roads, and surrounded by development. There is evidence of heavy grazing on state trust lands near Florence, Arizona, where another population of acuña cactus occurs.

Extensive, prolonged drought is probably responsible for much of the cactus’ population declines. But the plant is also facing some unique challenges: the OPCNM is a major travel corridor for immigration and smuggling. Border patrol has a heavy presence in the area. The routes for immigration and smuggling change constantly within the monument, making it difficult to predict the effects of either foot traffic or off-road law enforcement vehicle traffic on the cactus. Parasitism by the cactus weevil and black cactus borer may be contributing to the plant’s decline, and global warming could lengthen the breeding cycle for these insects, exacerbating the problem.

Fickeisen Plains Cactus

This diminutive plant (1 to 2.4 inches tall, 0.8 to 2.2 inches in diameter) is scattered across deserts and grasslands on the Colorado Plateau in Coconino and Mohave counties in northern Arizona. Perhaps 1200 plants occur on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Navajo Nation, the Arizona State Land Department, and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as private land. Most populations number fewer than two dozen plants, and some are represented by just 1-2 individuals. Illegal collection by enthusiasts and commercial cactus dealers has contributed to the decline of Fickeisen plains cactus. Although they are listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (which regulates international trade of the plant), their populations remain threatened by myriad factors. The plants are easily trampled by cattle; populations of the cactus on BLM lands are within active grazing allotments. The plant and its habitat are also variously affected by drought, off-road vehicle use, and management activities such as road maintenance.

The Service has proposed to designate 53,720 acres as critical habitat for the acuña cactus and 49,186 acres for the Fickeisen plains cactus. Areas proposed are primarily on federal, state and tribal lands. Research has discovered that species with designated critical habitat are twice as likely to recover as those without critical habitat.

The acuña cactus and Fickeisen plains cactus are among 252 candidate species covered in WildEarth Guardians’ settlement agreement with the Service, announced on May 10, 2011, and approved by a federal court on September 9, 2011. The agreement obligates the agency to either list or find “not warranted” for protection all 252 candidates by September 2016.

The Service also announced that it has determined that the Lemmon fleabane (Erigeron lemmonii), a third Arizona plant, no longer warrants federal protection and has withdrawn the plant from further consideration for listing.