Silent killer in the desert threatens sagauros

There is a silent killer living in the Sonoran Desert; it's called buffelgrass, and it's quietly covering the desert floor and choking the life out of Arizona's beloved state symbol, the stately saguaro cactus.

A team of desert-loving volunteers is working with the National Park Service to beat back this threat.

"We can lose our ecosystem if buffelgrass goes unchecked," said Dana Backer.

Buffelgrass is a problem because it's a fire hazard and it steals water from other plants that desperately need it.

The desert is supposed to be open, and the space between plants keeps fires from spreading, but when the desert floor is covered in the buffelgrass, it becomes friendly territory for flames.

"Saguaros have very shallow roots that go out far, not tap roots that rely on surface water, and when you have a saguaro growing up around buffelgrass it will preempt the saguaro from getting water, which could in a sense starve the saguaro," said Backer.

Buffelgrass comes from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; it was brought to dry parts of the United States in the 1930's. The grass thrived in the desert and was perfect for grazing cattle, but it got out of the places it was planted and spread into the wild. Now taking on the buffelgrass is deadly serious business for volunteers who love the desert.

It's hard physical work, off the rail, you have to make your way through an obstacle course of thorns. They use poles, shovels, and whatever it takes to pull the stubborn grass out by the roots.

"It's a way to give back, I am in the park almost every weekend that I am home, I monitor archeological sites for the park, that's another thing I do," said Lee Cooper.

There are hazards for the volunteers like rattlesnakes, but they're used to the snakes, they walked away and got right back to work.

"I come out every second Saturday, I have just made a commitment, I haven't missed these pulls," said Kathleen Vestecka.

The fight against buffelgrass is a ground war, but someday there may be hope from high-tech avenues, namely drones.

"We are right now working with the USGS and NAU to put a hyper-spectral camera on a drone to see if there is a signature to detect the buffelgrass, and correlate it with satellite imagery," said Backer.

But for now, it's just humans on the front lines, battling to save the saguaro by ripping out one buffelgrass plant at a time.