Three subpopulations of Ferocactus cylindraceus, a short-columnar cactus of the Sonoran and Mojave deserts, were sampled in Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA, at sites representing a range of substrate ages and different grazing histories. Age-height relations were determined from annual growth, then used to estimate probable year of establishment for each cohort. Eight years between 1944 and 1992 were especially favorable for establishment. Six of these 8 years coincided with El Nino-Southern Oscillation conditions, indicating that as for many woody plants in arid regions, somewhat unusual climatic conditions are necessary if populations are to replace themselves. Comparison of age structures showed that established and developing populations have somewhat different dynamics in that the rate of population increase was slowest on the youngest terrace. On the ancient terraces, about half the plants were less than 25 years old. Plants older than 40 years were few; however the oldest plants in the study (about 49 years) grew on the ancient terraces. On the recent terrace, 76% of the subpopulation was 25 years or younger, and the oldest living plant was about 36 years of age. The age structures of subpopulations on grazed and ungrazed sites also differed markedly. On ungrazed sites, subpopulations were more or less at equilibrium, with enough young plants to replace old ones as they died. In contrast, the subpopulation on the grazed site was in a state of marked disequilibrium. Grazing before 1981 largely extirpated a palatable subshrub that was probably an important nurse plant. Until the shrub population at Indian Canyon recovers from decades of burro grazing, a rebound in E cylindraceus establishment is not to be expected.