National Wildlife Refuge System
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Credit: USFWS
Cactus planting

A Sharp Sense of Accomplishment

Wanted: Thick-skinned folks able to withstand pain, kneel long hours under the desert sun. No fear of needles. Dexterity with barbeque tongs, tweezers and trowels a plus.

The ad didn’t actually say that. But that’s the reality for 35 adults and children who joined a cactus salvage and replanting operation earlier this year. The project was organized by the San Diego National Wildlife Refuge and the California Department of Fish and Game’s Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve in San Diego. The effort took place on the reserve, but will eventually benefit the San Diego Refuge.

Over four hours, the volunteers replanted about 6,000 small cholla − a spiny native cactus − rescued from bulldozers. The cholla is nesting habitat for the coastal cactus wren, a species that has suffered a sharp decline in southern California resulting from cactus damage by wildfires, agriculture and development. If all goes well, the cholla will be moved within the year to a habitat restoration area on the San Diego Refuge once the plants have grown and the restoration site is weeded, says refuge manager Jill Terp.

And what’s it like to replant cactus? “It’s certainly not a pain–free event,” acknowledges Terp, leather gloves notwithstanding.

You use one hand to grip the cactus with barbeque tongs, and the other to dig with a trowel. “You have to be very careful,” says Terp. “You can’t touch this cactus with anything other than a plastic or metal tool. If you touch it with your glove, your shoe, or −heaven forbid − your skin or your clothes, it sticks right to you. We call it jumping cactus because it feels like it just jumps and attaches itself to you.”

Doing the transplanting on its own rather than buying the plants from a commercial nursery saved the refuge several thousand dollars, says Terp.

For more information: San Diego National Wildlife Refuge or 619–468–9245

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