Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, August 17, 2016

Contact: Michael Robinson, (575) 313-7017,

Nearly 36,000 Acres of Critical Habitat Protected for Two Arizona Cacti

TUCSON, Ariz.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today protected 35,991 acres in Arizona as “critical habitat” for two types of cacti that are rapidly disappearing due to drought and extreme temperatures caused by global warming, as well as border-enforcement activities, off-road vehicle use and livestock grazing. 

Acuna cactus
Acuña cactus photo by Jim Rorabaugh, USFWS. This photo is available for media use.

“When cacti can’t survive in the desert, something is seriously out of whack,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “These important protections will guard against disturbances of the rocky grounds where these cacti grow. But that’s not enough — we have to drastically, quickly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to ensure the Earth remains hospitable for cacti, polar bears and people alike.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service designated 18,535 acres in southern Arizona’s Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties for the acuña cactus and 17,456 acres in northern Arizona’s Mojave and Coconino counties for the diminutive Fickeisen plains cactus. This is a sharp cut from the 53,720 acres of critical habitat proposed for the acuña cactus and 49,186 acres proposed for the Fickeisen plains cactus by the agency in 2012. The difference reflects the elimination of unoccupied habitat for the acuña cactus and exclusion of military and tribal lands based on management plans for both species.

“You can't protect endangered species without protecting the places they live,” said Robinson. “So while I'm grateful for protection of critical habitat for these unique and beautiful cacti, I’m disappointed that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to protect all the areas scientists have identified as important for the plants’ recovery.”

The acuña cactus, which depends on winter moisture to flower and produce seed-bearing fruits, is experiencing a steep decline throughout its range in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, as plants succumb to unnaturally severe heat and are not replaced. Drought-stressed acuña cacti are also dying from insect infestations that, under wetter conditions, they would likely have survived.

Moreover, because the vast majority of remaining acuña cacti occur within 10 miles of the border with Mexico, the plants are at risk of being run over during border-crossing and enforcement activities. They are also at risk from the spread of non-native, invasive buffelgrass.

The Fickeisen plains cactus was once widespread along ledges in northern Arizona, but is now rapidly disappearing due to drought and associated susceptibility to insect infestations, along with livestock trampling that inhibits germination of young cacti.

The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from undertaking or authorizing actions that harm or destroy critical habitat. Most of the land designated today consists of public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.

The acuña cactus is spherical in shape and grows to 3.5 inches wide and 16 inches tall, blooming in March with rose, pink or lavender flowers. Almost three-quarters of known acuña cacti live in Arizona and the rest in Sonora, Mexico.

The Fickeisen plains cactus is globular in shape, grows to just 2.4 inches tall and 2.2 inches wide, lives close to the edges of canyon rims, and, through retractile roots, copes with extremes of heat or cold by pulling itself down into the neighboring substrate until its crown is flush with the surface — and emerging when conditions improve.

Both cacti were identified as imperiled in 1975, but no action was taken to place them on the endangered species list. In 2002 and 2004, in the face of accelerating population declines, the Center submitted scientific petitions to protect the cacti as endangered. But the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to take any action.

In a 2011 legal settlement with the Center, the Service agreed to establish a deadline for deciding whether to protect under the Endangered Species Act a total of 757 animal and plant species for which decisions were long overdue. To date this agreement has led to protection under the Act of 147 species, including, last year, both of these cacti. An additional 35 species have been proposed for protection.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Go back