Save a Saguaro! Tucson Community Fights Buffelgrass

After University of Arizona Journalism student Hannah Cree attended the Save Our Saguaros Month Kickoff event to investigate the Tucson community’s efforts against the invasive species buffelgrass, we invited her to share the resulting story here on the Desert Diaries blog. Thank you to Hannah!

By Hannah Cree with photos by Desert Museum staff

It’s a cold February day in Tucson, Arizona, the wind giving an extra bite to my exposed hands as I crunch across the gravelly parking lot of Sentinel Peak. Volunteers are suiting up for battle, donning thick rubber gardening gloves and lacing clunky hiking boots. They clutch six-foot tools that resemble crowbars, and pickaxes wicked enough to carry you up the side of a glacier.

Residents of the Sonoran Desert are taking a stand against a silent invader that, if given the spark, threatens to burn the delicate ecosystem to the ground: buffelgrass.

Buffelgrass was brought to the Southwest from Africa at the turn of the last century, mostly as grazing material for cattle. Unfortunately for the native flora of the Sonoran Desert, buffelgrass is exceptionally good at growing in its mild climate.

As we approached the ¾ mile mark of our hike to the pulling site, the trail opened into a massive clearing. Buffelgrass shimmered and waved in the wind; an image that looked like a postcard for the American Midwest. It was tall and strong compared to the native plants at this time of year, like it was entitled to the rocky soil. In some places, the fuzzy stalks reached my waist.

Buffelgrass overcrowds native plants, outcompetes food sources for desert animals, and is also highly susceptible to fire. While wildfires are a mere nuisance to buffelgrass, it’s disastrous for saguaros and other native plants to the Sonoran Desert.

According to the National Parks Service, buffelgrass fires burn between 1300 and 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. Normal fires with native Sonoran plants burn between 190 and 750 degrees. The intensity of these fires fueled by buffelgrass means that practically nothing survives, except the buffelgrass itself. It’s a fire-resistant plant, meaning it grows back easily even after it has been burned. Failing to remove the grass in susceptible areas could cost Tucson in more ways than one.

“It will cause billions of dollars in damages, because in the foothills, the most expensive homes are the most susceptible to fire,” said Kevin Dahl, Tucson City Councilmember for Ward 6.

According to the Desert Museum, herbicides are effective, but only during certain times of the plant’s growing season. This is why regular manual removal of the grass, like Feb. 5th’s Save Our Saguaros Kickoff, are necessary.

As volunteer groups come to realize, quantifying the extent of buffelgrass is a challenge. Vianey Avila, Invasive Species Program Coordinator for the Desert Museum, says that technologies to map buffelgrass have to be improved in order to fully understand the extent of buffelgrass in the Southwest. For now, Avila says apps like iNaturalist and EDDMapS allow civilians to record and upload the location of buffelgrass patches they find, creating a collaborative outline of the problem.

Some pullers chose to work alone, but the biggest clumps of buffelgrass demand two people; one to pull the stalks while another simultaneously wedges and pries and pokes the soil away at the base until the roots rip free.

Melanie Schaffner, a tough, seasoned buffelgrass annihilator in her mid-sixties who has been “hooked” on attending these events since her very first pull in 2010, attacked the soil with an energy that compelled everyone around her to work twice as hard just to keep up.

“All right, take a rest,” she’d tell me patiently, once the stabs of my steel pry bar grew sloppy and my breath became ragged and the stubborn roots weren’t budging. She taught me her best trick: creating a fulcrum out of a rock to balance my prybar on for more leverage against the buffelgrass roots.

Schaffner says it’s the instant gratification of roots ripping out of soil that keeps her coming back.

“You can do something else that you may not see [the effects of] in your lifetime, but this makes a difference in a year,” she said.

“Get out of the way, honey,” Schaffner cooed to a feeble plant as she swung her pickaxe, trying to gently wiggle away the haughty buffelgrass that grew around it. The smaller plant was a triangle leaf bursage, she told me confidently, despite the plant’s dormant and dry winter state. 

For others like Brian Powell, a Park Superintendent for the Pima County Parks and Recreation Department, the pulls provide an opportunity to preserve a place they love.

“We have a very strong sense of place. The saguaro is a symbol, and I think this really motivates people to get engaged with the issue,” he said.

Saguaro cactus at the Desert Museum

Soon, piles of uprooted grass lay around our feet, heavy rocks keeping them in place. The technique, called thatching, minimizes the buffelgrass seeds that spread from the roots, according to Avila.

When our group leader called us back, the few hundred square yards that had been overrun by buffelgrass not two hours earlier was now empty dirt. Buffelgrass is a strong and potentially deadly enemy, but it’s easily defeated with a little elbow grease. It gives us a tangible opportunity to make a difference amidst the seemingly endless pit of despair that is climate change. Dahl agrees.

“I cleared some buffelgrass from a baby saguaro that, if a fire came through, would have been toast,” he said. “I’m glad to do it.”

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