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More than 100 saguaros were transplanted in Trump's rush to build border wall. Many have died

At the height of border wall construction under former President Donald Trump, more than 100 saguaros were dug out of environmentally delicate areas along the U.S.-Mexico border to make room for that infrastructure.

More than four years later, much of that work is still being repaired. 

In 2019, the U.S. government was under pressure by Trump to speed up construction of the border wall.

“We need strong barriers and walls. Nothing else is going to work. Everyone knows it. Everybody is saying it now. It’s just a question of time," Trump said.

Nearly four years later, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, reported some of the damage the border wall caused to southern Arizona cultural and natural resources.

“What we have in the Sonoran Desert is one of the most species-rich, remarkable desert ecologies in the world," said plant ecologist Peter Breslin at University of Arizona’s Tumamoc Hill Desert Laboratory.

Hundreds of prickly-spined Southwest sentinels spread themselves across Tumamoc Hill and up the Tucson Mountains.

“The keystone of that whole ecosystem is the saguaro. It is home to many species of birds; it provides food. It provides an entire support system and structure," Breslin said.

Breslin said if saguaros are struggling that could mean the whole Sonoran Desert ecosystem is, too.

“When you move a saguaro, you’re putting it in a location that is probably significantly different from where it naturally germinated and grew. So, a lot of those moderating effects of rocks and the type of soil, those kinds of factors can also increase the risk of mortality," he said. "That’s part of the reason why we’re concerned about preserving space where saguaros grow, rather than counting on our ability to restore space.”

Customs and Border Protection said it relocated at least 100 saguaros since 2019 along the patrol road used by agents on the Arizona-Mexico border.

According to the GAO report, a National Park Service official told auditors as many as half of saguaros did not survive the move. GAO Directors Anna Maria Ortiz and Rebecca Gambler conducted the audit.

Ortiz told CBP and the Interior Department to coordinate to fix the problem.

“There are many people, including the local Indigenous people, who are affected. And, without that coordination between them to figure out how to move forward, they may just be chipping piecemeal at certain parts of the project," she said.

The affected saguaros grew near a border road in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Others grew within Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and on the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Tribal leaders at the time were opposed to border wall construction in the area.

“For us, this is no different from DHS building a 30-foot wall along Arlington Cemetery or through the grounds of the National Cathedral," said then-O’odham chair Ned Norris to Congress. 

The Nation’s Legislative Council passed a resolution in May 2021 affirming the sacred nature of saguaros. It considers the cactus an O’odham person.

Nation officials later told auditors that “saguaros are significant to O’odham culture and livelihood, as [they] provide an important fruit source," and are a plant to be given the utmost respect.

Laiken Jordahl is with the Center for Biological Diversity and a former Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument fellow.

“We went out to look at some of these saguaros maybe six months after they'd been transplanted, and already many of them were standing dead," Jordahl said. “The vast majority of saguaros that were transplanted were already doomed to die the moment that they were moved from the places where they had been growing — in many cases for over a century."

But when President Joe Biden took office, he issued a proclamation to pause border wall construction. It also required agencies to create a plan to redirect money and act on it.

“That didn’t necessarily mean that they had to stop trying to care for these saguaros," Jordahl said. 

Then the Defense Department canceled border plant salvation projects in January 2021. It prevented biological staff from watering and tending to the transplanted saguaros.

Environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, sent the Biden administration criteria on how to redeem ecologically fragile areas. One of those was to put the border wall funding toward habitat restoration.

GAO auditors told KJZZ the agency doesn’t know how much restoration will actually cost, and they "do not have detailed information on what’s going on now in terms of mitigation," Ortiz said.

In an email, CBP said it’s still working with Interior to follow the GAO’s recommendations. But the report’s status remains marked red on all points, indicating that limited progress has been made.

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Tori Gantz was an intern from 2023 to 2024 at KJZZ.