PHOENIX — A four-year undercover investigation has resulted in the indictment of 21 people on charges of stealing rare cactuses and selling them for up to $15,000 each, federal officials announced Thursday.
The investigation, which included federal agents running a phony nursery operation, uncovered the theft of thousands of protected plants in the desert, said Stephen M. McNamee, U.S. attorney for Arizona. The stolen plants included about 150 giant saguaro cactuses, which are protected by federal law, McNamee said.
The rare "crested" saguaros have arms spreading out into fans or crests as large as 12-feet across.
The saguaros, which generally grow only in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, bring as much as $15,000 each on the black market, McNamee said. Regular saguaros sell for about $100 a foot.
Richard Marks, agent-in-charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., said the phony nursery was set up to help agents become acquainted with people allegedly dealing in stolen cactuses. He declined to give further information about the investigation.
McNamee said the investigation was important to Arizona because of the state's fragile desert environment and the fact that "people come from all over the world to see these giant saguaro cactus."