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Capitol Reef rangers look to protect rare cacti
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Capitol Reef National Park • The endangered Winkler cactus emerges plum-size each spring to show off a purple, orange or pink flower, then retreats back under the summer sands.

Now you see it, now you don't.

It's a natural disappearing act for a naturally rare specimen. But park rangers fear the sight will become still rarer from a man-made danger: poaching. Though they've never caught anyone in the act, they do find signs of people having dug the cacti or piled up rock cairns to mark the locations of certain color variations so they can return when seed pods are ready.

Scanning the Internet for sales information, they find that the Europeans who so populate the trails of southern Utah's parks also seem most interested in these little beauties.

"Europeans in general and Germans in particular really like growing desert rock gardens," said Dave Worthington, the park's chief of resource management.

The Winkler cactus — Pediocactus winkleri — didn't necessarily make America's endangered species list because of widespread habitat destruction, though botanists do worry about off-road vehicles (illegal within the park but not on habitat outside) and cattle grazing (legal for the time being). The designation came more because the habitat was never widespread to start with, making each plant more important to species survival.

Capitol Reef is a unique north-south twist of sandstone uplifts that catch varied amounts of sunlight and moisture to create microhabitats for dozens of rare plants. The Winkler cactus, like the similar-looking Wright fish hook cactus that also is poached from the park, is one of seven park plants protected under the Endangered Species Act.

There are about 8,000 wild Winkler cacti in the world, all of them in Wayne County and a sliver of eastern Sevier County, and half of them in the park, managers believe. The Wright fish hook — Sclerocactus wrightiae — is thought to number about 20,000, with more occurring on the surrounding Bureau of Land Management grounds than in the park.

Balancing acts • The cactus situation leads to two dilemmas, or balancing acts, for park managers. One involves the National Park Service's mandate to protect resources for the enjoyment of the people — some of whom will steal if you point out where a resource is growing. The other involves the park's unique enabling legislation, which required a continuation of cattle grazing for as long as the immediate heirs of the land's 1960s ranchers wanted to keep up the tradition. Cows step on cacti.

That first dilemma, about public enjoyment, pains the park staff. Occasionally somebody in the know will approach a ranger asking help locating a cactus in flower season. They generally won't help. "It bums me out," Worthington said, because displaying unique natural phenomena is what national parks are all about.

"It's too bad," park biologist Sandy Borthwick said, "because they would love to see them. If they stumble on them by themselves, that's great. But we don't really want to direct them."

The seeds typically have been tough to grow in other environments, but recent attempts at grafting young specimens to the hardier, ubiquitous prickly-pear cactus have worked. It made seeds from nurseries more attractive.

"When that happened we thought there might be a reduction [in poaching]," Worthington said, "but there are still people out there digging in the desert."

The threat led park law-enforcement rangers to purchase a kit allowing them to insert a tracker the size of a pencil lead into a cactus using a large hypodermic needle, and a scanner to identify each specimen. The routine is like that of a biologist who captures and tags fish or a veterinarian who puts an ID chip in the family dog, and it can confirm stolen fauna.

That is, it could confirm the loot if the Park Service and its federal partners could track down a thief.

"We've contacted people in the field that have led to ongoing investigations," Chief Ranger Scott Brown said. "But there have been no prosecutions… It's a pretty elusive thing."

A capture might not lead to criminal prosecution anyway. Brown said the Park Service uses a law allowing the culprits to pay restoration costs rather than face prosecution and restitution that might aid the U.S. Treasury but not restore the resource. A recent example involves vandals who paid several thousand dollars to a fund to remove their name etching from next to one by legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy.

Park rangers want to protect resources, Brown said, not put people in jail.

Limited resources • Rangers have positioned remote motion detectors, automatic cameras and highly sensitive seismic detectors in the brush around some cactus beds. Even with that help, it's tough duty for five rangers policing a 70-mile-long backcountry park with 670,000 annual visitors. "I just don't have the resources," Brown said.

It can be a guessing game whenever a seismic sensor detects footsteps near cacti. Is the device crying wolf?

"Few people are going to be walking out here unless they're looking for cactus," Worthington said near one of the detectors this month. But, "I don't know how often a [ranger] would come out here and learn that a cow walked by."

A cow walking by or even trampling a cactus is no violation — at least until heirs of the earlier grazing permit holders have died or sold out. All but two of the original 20 have sold out, but heirs to those two are as young as their 40s and could keep ranching for decades.

Park managers offer to buy them out each year when they get together to discuss grazing plans, but so far they're content to keep doing what they've always done — spread dozens of cows across the desert during winter. Grazing does kill cacti, park Superintendent Al Hendricks said, but it doesn't seem a long-term threat to species survival, given the inevitable.

"Our experience has been that there's often a good chance for recovery [after damage]," Hendricks said. "At least inside the park, there will come a day."

This year the park has embarked on a three-year study to learn more about how the cacti are doing. It's funded by a $207,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey and could help determine the top threats, as well as whether fencing some plots or making other grazing adjustments might help.

These plants have a role in their desert, Borthwick said, even if no one has yet studied them enough to know its extent. Kneeling near a dead Wright fish hook cactus, she pointed to where a white-tailed antelope squirrel had tunneled through sand to avoid the spines and get at the root.

"Perhaps in drier years like this year it may be an important source of moisture for the squirrels," she said.

"Everything has its place and plays a role in the scheme of the natural environment," said Hendricks, the park superintendent. "All of the parts of an ecosystem are related to one another."

Losing these endangered plants could have unknown and unintended consequences, he said.

One sure loss would be the springtime color brightening the desert. Celebrate Capitol Reef's anniversary

President Franklin Roosevelt made Capitol Reef a national monument 75 years ago Thursday, 34 years before President Richard Nixon signed the bill elevating it to national park status. The National Park Service will celebrate with three days of events in the park this week:

Thursday

8-11 a.m. • Geoscientist leads geology hike to Hickman Bridge.

8:30-11 a.m. • Visitor center unveils new exhibits; local authors sign books.

9-11 a.m. • Historic schoolhouse opens.

8:45-9:45 p.m. • Superintendent Al Hickman hosts a campground program on the history of national parks and Capitol Reef.

Friday

7-9 a.m. • Bird walk leaves from Inglesby picnic area.

8-11 a.m. • Geoscientist leads geology hike to Hickman Bridge.

8:30-11 a.m. • Fremont River bat research presentation at campground Loop B.

9-11 a.m. • Historic schoolhouse opens.

8:45-9:45 p.m. • Ranger Cindy Micheli hosts a campground program on park's historic orchards.

Saturday

9 a.m.-4 p.m. • Gifford House hosts cultural demostrations.

9 a.m.-7 p.m. • Local musicians perform.

9-11 a.m. • Historic schoolhouse opens.

4:30-5 p.m. • Gifford House hosts pioneer history discussion.

5:30-7:30 p.m. • Gifford House hosts cowboy cookout and live music for a fee.

7-8:30 p.m. • Gifford House hosts special musical guest Brenn Hill.

8:45-9:45 p.m. • Professor Tom Morris hosts campground program on Capitol Reef geology.

Capitol Reef rangers hunt for rare cacti — found in Wayne County and a small portion of Sevier County — that are being threatened by poachers and cows.
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