The Wright fishhook cactus (Sclerocactus wrightiae L.D. Benson) is an endangered cactus species endemic to south-central Utah. Since its listing in 1979 by the U.S. Fish and Wildife Service, the potential impacts of soil disturbance by cattle have become a central focus of management policies and monitoring efforts. However, little to no empirical data has been collected to substantiate the hypothesis that soil disturbance by cattle has direct or indirect negative effects on Wright fishhook cactus growth or reproduction. Over the years, the Bureau of Land Mangement (BLM) and Capitol Reef National Park (CRNP) have invested significant resources documenting cactus populations including several attributes of individual cacti: GPS location, diameter, number of flowers, fruits, or buds, number of stems, and the presence or absence of a cow track within 15 cm of the cactus. While these efforts have been commendable, due to the defining phenological characteristics of this species (flower and filament color) and its short flowering period (April-May) it remains difficult to study and much basic biological information including a range wide population estimate and defined critical habitat remain unknown. Our research had two primary objectives, 1) evalutate the effects of soil disturbance by cattle on reproduction and diameter of the Wright fishhook cactus (Chapters 1 and 2), and 2) explore the use of drones and GIS to define critical habitat and obtain an accurate range wide population estimate (Chapters 3 and 4). In Chapter 1, we analyzed cactus attribute data collected by the BLM at 30 macro-plots representing different levels of soil related cattle disturbance (high, moderate, and low) from 2011-2017. We found no significant association between level of cattle disturbance and flower density or cactus diameter. We did find a significant negative association between flower frequency and increased disturbance. In Chapter 2, we conducted an experimental study where tracks were simulated within 15 cm of cacti at various levels (Ctrl, 1-Track, 2-Track, 4-Tracks, and 4-Tracks Doubled). No significant association was observed between the number of tracks and response in diameter, flower production, fruit production, or seed set. In Chapter 3, we conducted drone flights over 14 macro-plots at three different altitudes above ground level (10 m, 15 m, and 20 m) and found that while the 10 m flights provided the best remotely sensed survey results, drones are not a suitable replacement for ground censuses. In Chapter 4, we used Resource Selection Function to define critical habitat for the Wright fishhook cactus. Our modeling suggests that geology, elevation, and slope are significant factors in defining cactus habitat. Based on the results of our research we conclude that soil disturbance by cattle may not have a significant influence on Wright fishhook cactus populations or dynamics, and that accurate range wide population estimates may be best obtained through ground surveys within the predicted critical habitat.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Plant and Wildlife Sciences



Date Submitted


Document Type





Sclerocactus wrightiae, fishhook cactus, cattle, disturbance, track simulation, drones, high resolution remote sensing, endangered plants, sUAS, critical habitat, RSF



Included in

Life Sciences Commons