Arizona Daily Star, Rick Wiley) MANDATORY CREDIT, NO MAGS, NO SALES., Associated Press
In this Dec. 29, 2011 photo, Reis Lindley, foreground, of The Arizona Native Plant Society, walks around a wildcat shooting area in the Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson, Ariz. Lindley estimates that the largest of three Saguaro cactus allegedly shotgunned until they fell is more than 100-years-old. Law enforcement from the Bureau of Land Management is investigating the incident.

TUCSON, Ariz. — Four saguaros up to 10 feet long lay prone on last week near the base of a towering hill in Ironwood Forest National Monument — the latest symbols of a problem and a dispute that won't go away.

The saguaros near Avra Hill were found a month or so ago with spent bullets and shells lying nearby, say members of the Arizona Native Plant Society who reported them to the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM's law-enforcement branch is investigating this incident — one of two ongoing cactus-shooting investigations, said Mark Rekshynskyj, a BLM official in Tucson.

"It looks like they targeted the arms first and shot off the arms, then went to the bases and shot them down," said the plant society's John Scheuring.

The dead cacti have become ammunition for plant advocates in a long-running conflict with shooters over whether recreational target shooting should be banned from the monument, now nearly 12 years old.

The BLM is proposing to ban recreational shooting as part of a new management plan for the 129,000-acre monument. But the bureau is resisting a petition from nine groups including the plant society, the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and Friends of Ironwood Forest, calling for an immediate ban instead of waiting until the agency can adopt the plan in six months to a year.

The National Rifle Association opposes the ban as an overreaction and suggests that the bureau target specific monument areas for closing. The NRA is putting its weight behind a bill in Congress, sponsored by Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, that would require congressional approval of a national monument recreational shooting ban lasting more than six months. The bill would make it BLM policy "to keep national monument lands open to access and use for recreational shooting."

Since before the feds created this monument 30 miles northwest of Tucson, recreational shooters have been an issue, and the BLM, environmentalists, ranchers and neighboring residents now agree that plant shooting is increasing. Recurring target shooting is documented at 34 monument locations, the BLM says.

"The intensity at which this activity now occurs . is causing new noticeable impacts, reaching levels that monument resources may not be able to sustain," the BLM observed last September in an appendix to the proposed management plan.

Ironwood monument rancher Steve Lehning said: "I've been talking about this for 19 years, and nobody has stopped them. Every year it gets worse." Fearful for his cattle's safety, he has sold all but six of his 120 head, he said. As he walked past Cerrito Represso, another hill popular with shooters, he pointed to a swath of empty desert that he said used to contain many cacti and trees, and to a scattering of saguaros with tops sheared off.

"One bullet at a time," Lehning said.

But the NRA and shooters say most target shooters clean their messes, shoot only at man-made targets and shouldn't be penalized for the sins of "yahoos."

"If people want to say you can't shoot in a particular area because of safety issues, that is something that should be open to discussion," said Todd Rathner, a national NRA board member who works as a lobbyist on gun and other issues in Tucson. "If there are areas more sensitive than others for various reasons, fine. We could figure out a way to deal with those. But the problem is that the environmentalists think that any human use of these areas is somehow a threat to the environment."

Outdoor target shooting appeals to many shooters. "It's part of the appeal of being in a place like Arizona where you are free to do things like that," Rathner said.

Rathner is skeptical of authorities' and environmentalists' statements that shooting wipes out cacti, especially the latest four saguaros: "What do they know about it? Are they ballistic experts?" Also, if Lehning's problems are that bad, it's an emergency that the BLM should have addressed long ago by enforcing existing laws, he added.

But A.J. Duncan, who scours the monument for recyclable metals to sell, said he dug AK-47 assault rifle bullets and shotgun buckshot out of the four saguaros before reporting them to the native plant society.

"I started digging into the cactus and found at least a dozen rounds in each one," he said.

Monument resident Jim Maben said he doesn't really want a shooting ban since he target-shoots, "but I don't want this to happen."

"The shooters need a place to go and an organization that can take care of it," said Maben, who last week reported to the BLM a saguaro shooting about a mile from his home on private land.

But as northwest-side resident Eric Hackenbracht took a break from shooting at a cardboard target, he said with more legal places to shoot, "there wouldn't be places like this." Since the Tucson Rod and Gun Club's Sabino Canyon shooting range closed in 1997, "there is nowhere to go," he said. Pima County's shooting range on the far southeast side is too far, Hackenbracht said.

A key issue is enforcement.

The BLM has three agents covering a half-million acres of Southern Arizona conservation lands including Ironwood, said BLM's Rekshynskyj. Getting more enforcement as the NRA suggests "is going to be a tough deal" due to the economic climate, he said. If the shooting ban becomes law, he hopes to boost public education to bring about compliance.

Rancher Lehning is dubious that a ban will be adequately enforced, adding, "There's no end in sight."

Information from: Arizona Daily Star,