When Larry Richards, an Arizona lawman, drives into his state's desert to hunt for rustlers, he knows he's dealing with a desperate bunch. "Most of these guys have nothing to lose," says Richards. "I'd say 65 to 70 percent of them carry guns."
Richards, however, has little in common with the Hollywood version of the Old West sheriff. What's more, Richards's desperadoes aren't after cattle. Their prey is usually saguaro cacti that they have dug illegally from the ground in hopes of selling them, on what has become a burgeoning black market for Arizona's native cactus.
"Cactus rustling has always been a problem, but it skyrocketed here three years ago," says Richards, known as the state's cactus cop. His formal title is Native Plant Law Specialist for the Arizona Commission on Agriculture and Horticulture. "We've tracked stolen plants to Kansas City, Louisiana, even Holland."
By law, no one can remove protected plants from private, state or federal land in Arizona without first obtaining a permit from the commission. But rustlers bypass the law, digging up whatever plant will bring the most cash from buyers at developments, plant nurseries and private homes. The saguaro, the symbol of Arizona and the Southwest, is a prize for rustlers. A 15- to 18-footer can fetch as much as $1,200, plus a bonus of $50 to $75 for each of its arms. Experts say a saguaro needs 75 to 125 years to grow an arm.
Cactus rustling took off in 1987 after the well-publicized theft of a cristate saguaro, a rare form of saguaro that grows sideways into a fan shape at its peak. Investigators tracked the hijacked cactus to a nursery in Las Vegas, where it had a $15,000 price tag. Richards says that when that figure hit the newspapers, the demand for cristates immediately soared. Since then, at least 17 more cristates have been swiped from Arizona, a disturbing number considering that there are probably fewer than 150 in the entire state. "A very small number of saguaros become cristates, maybe one in a hundred thousand or less," says Mark Dimmitt, curator of plants at Tucson's Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. "It's an abnormality in the growth pattern, and we don't really know why it happens."
To protect cristates, two years ago the commission began photographing them and mapping their locations. So far Richards has a catalog of 80. About 45 of those were identified by citizens who were alarmed that cristates were being stolen.
Most pilfered cacti are tracked by means of traditional detective work—calls from informants, staking out high-theft areas, patrolling plant nurseries in plain clothes and keeping tabs on known rustlers, some of whom have been hauled into court four or five times and jailed for several months, and have paid thousands of dollars in fines.
Because of the huge distances involved, policing Arizona for cactus rustlers is a frustrating job. "There is so much desert and only a few of us," says Richards. Last year the state issued 77 citations for cactus theft, and Richards expects a 10% increase in 1990. However, he knows the number of thefts is many times that.
Richards is especially concerned that rustling is causing a depletion of the state's stock of eight-to 15-foot saguaros, the most popular among rustlers because they are the easiest to move. At about eight feet the plant flowers and then produces fruit bearing the seeds that result in more saguaros. "I can show you places where saguaros that size used to be," says Richards. "In some areas black marketers are taking out a whole generation."
Some Arizonans believe the desert is a mystical place with ways of exacting its revenge against violators. About 10 years ago a father and son were target shooting at a saguaro in the desert outside Phoenix. The enormous plant, weakened by the bullets, collapsed and crushed the father to death. "I don't mean to be coldhearted," says Richards, "but my first thought when I read about the accident was that it was poetic justice. The environment strikes back."
Larry Richards labors to stop rustlers from uprooting armed but defenseless saguaros.
Leo Banks, a writer who lives in Tucson, has written several stories about Arizona for SI.