LAS VEGAS - Driving through remote National Park Service lands in Southern Nevada, resource management specialist Alice Newton often looks out over vistas dotted with hundreds of yucca plants and cactuses. But more and more Newton sees holes marking the spot where plants should be - the calling card of desert scavengers known as plant poachers.
''It's been going on for decades here,'' Newton said. ''The wilderness areas in this state are so vast that you could drive by a hill and never know that on the other side someone is loading up a truck with cactuses.''
The National Park Service is hoping to stem the tide of these cactus crooks with a new high-tech tool that will alert rangers to stolen plants and help the agency learn how many plants are being illegally plucked from public lands.
Electronic identification tags about the size of a grain of rice were injected into about 1,400 plants in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area four months ago. A second round of tagging, that will include about 1,000 more plants, is scheduled early next year.
The effectiveness of the project won't be determined until a poacher is caught with a tagged plant.
''There's really no way to determine whether it has been a success or a failure at this point,'' Park Service spokesman Bert Byers said. ''We plan to continue the tagging, and the mere threat of the existence of the tags should help as a deterrent.''
The tags, passive integrated transponders, are injected into the plants with a syringe. Rangers can use scanning devices that will register a tag inside a stolen cactus proving it was taken illegally. Each plant injected with a tag also is given a global positioning coordinate so that every year rangers will be able to relocate them and get a count on how many tagged cactuses are missing. The first field count is scheduled this fall.
''Right now we don't really know how many are being taken, but we know it's happening,'' Newton said. ''The people that do this are a lot like drug dealers taking advantage of high demand to make for an extremely lucrative product, except there is less of a chance that plant poachers will be caught.''
It's common for small barrel cactus, one of the most pilfered plants, to sell for $60 to $150 at Las Vegas nurseries. Barrel cactus are bulbous shaped plants that range in size from less than a foot to decades-old plants that can stretch higher than 6 feet tall. The larger cactuses can bring as much as $1,000.
''Those bigger cactuses are extremely rare and could be 100 years old,'' Newton said. ''They can't be replaced, and you won't see nurseries selling them.''
The market for cactuses, yucca and other desert plants has been fueled by the need for landscaping at new housing developments and the growing popularity of low-maintenance desert landscaping, Newton said.
Digging the plants up is fairly easy because they can be quickly gathered and thrown in the back of a truck, Bureau of Land Management district ranger Randy August said.
''They'll take out a pickup with a camper shell on it, and if they have a couple of shovels and a helper, they can load it up with 10 to 15 plants in about an hour,'' August said.
Permits can be acquired to harvest cactuses and other plants for commercial use from private lands, but on the nearly 4 million acres of BLM and federal park land in Southern Nevada such harvests are illegal.
''A lot of times we'll get mom and pop driving around, and they see something pretty on the side of the road and decide it would look nice in their yard,'' Newton said. ''The more injurious are the ones who come out with a plan to grab as many plants as they can and then sell them off.''
Many people don't even know it's illegal to dig up plants on federal land for personal use, August said.
''Where we can, we try to educate people who didn't know any better, and have them replant what they were taking,'' August said. ''If education works, we'll try to use it.''
If a warning isn't enough, or if a commercial collector is caught, penalties can range from a maximum $25,000 fine and up to five years in prison for each violation of the Lacey Act, a federal law that prohibits transportation, acquisition or sale of an illegally obtained plant.
Besides working as a deterrent, the transponders should make it easier for law enforcement to prove that someone has committed a felony and taken a plant off federal lands, National Park Law Enforcement Ranger Glen Anderson said.
''There are a lot of privately owned lands out there in and around protected areas, and those can be legally harvested as long as the owner gives permission and the proper permits and tags are obtained,'' Anderson said. ''That makes it extremely hard to make charges stick because someone can claim they dug the plants off private land.''
Two years ago on a rainy Valentine's Day, Anderson arrested a plant poacher near Lake Mohave's Cottonwood Cove, but had to redouble his efforts to prove the man had committed a crime.
''A citizen saw a man digging up cactuses off a dirt road, and reported it to a rural Metro Police officer who called me,'' Anderson said. ''He had his permits and had permission to harvest off some private land up the road, but where he was digging when the witness saw him was Park Service land.
''He was refilling the holes to cover his tracks, and if we hadn't pretty much caught him in the act, we would have had an even harder time getting a conviction.''
Without the witness Anderson probably wouldn't have gotten the conviction, and that's where Newton thinks the new high-tech gear can help by linking plants to federal lands.
''We haven't tested them in a court setting yet, but we think they should provide clear evidence,'' Newton said.
''It isn't cheap, but you're balancing the cost against the hundreds of dollars that people are making off selling these plants,'' said Newton, who obtained money for the project through federal grants.
The transponders cost $5.25 apiece, while pocket scanners cost $325, and a more powerful scanner is $1,600, she said.
The transponders might help with controlling the poachers, but Newton says she hopes that buyers will realize that purchasing illegally harvested plants can cause them their own problems.
''Buying cactus off the backs of fly-by-night trucks puts people at a great risk,'' Newton said. ''Not only could they be caught with an illegally obtained plant, but most of the time the plant will die a few months after being planted. They end up paying a lot for a plant that dies because the poacher doesn't know how to properly move it.
''It's like walking down the street and buying a Rolex for a $100 from someone. You know something's wrong with that, so you don't do it.''