Saving America’s wild burros

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Saving America’s wild burros
Photo courtesy of Mark Meyers.

An inside look at the current circumstances surrounding wild burros in the US, and how organizations are working to manage the overpopulation of these animals.

For centuries, wild burros have played an integral and invaluable part in the Western world’s expansion. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the US’s wild burro population. The issues and welfare concerns surrounding wild burros in our country is quite complex and overwhelmingly misunderstood. Our hope is to bring to light the issues wild burros currently face, and what the future may hold for these beautiful creatures.

Background

In 1971, centuries after burros were first introduced to the West (see sidebar at right), Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act as a way to address the overpopulation of these animals. Prior to the passage of this act, horses and burros were routinely shot, rounded up and harassed as they were seen as direct competitors to cattle ranchers. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was given the responsibility of establishing Herd Management Areas (HMAs), setting stocking rates and removing any horses or burros deemed excessive to what the rangelands could support. Through the years, the BLM has assisted other agencies such as the National Park Service (NPS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS) with their burro populations. Unfortunately, in recent years, the numbers have become much higher than their adoption program can handle. Today, the storage of these removed horses and burros has finally hit a tipping point.

What’s being done?

To properly understand the current state of America’s wild burros, you must first understand which animals are protected and which are not. As things stand today, only those burros on BLM administered lands are considered “protected”. BLM lands lie outside national parks, military bases, USF&WS refuges, Native American reservations, and state-held lands. The numbers of wild burros in these areas are debated – some estimate there could be anywhere from several hundred to several thousand. They also migrate in herds between protected and unprotected lands in search of resources as populations shift. On protected lands, it is a federal crime to harm wild horses and burros, but the animals are not offered the same protections within unprotected areas. In fact, national parks have a “Zero Horse and Burro” policy based on the fact that these animals are a “non-native species” that competes with native wildlife and causes destruction. The argument is also made that car accidents often occur in overpopulated regions as the burros migrate.

Death Valley National Park is known for having large numbers of wild burros. Since 1938, burro roundups have been conducted in this park by the BLM and other agencies at the direction of the federal government. But although millions have been spent on these roundups, one thing has happened each time – the BLM never maintains the projects. Eventually, the burros return and repopulate, and more roundups are required – typically every 20 years.

Too many burros, not enough resources

The BLM spends more than half its entire budget on feeding and storing over 50,000 wild horses and burros at various sites in Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. Their own Advisory Board has repeatedly recommended that these surplus animals be destroyed. Public opinion has kept this recommendation from being implemented, but the current predicament of overpopulation on these storage sites has resulted in fewer and fewer roundups taking place. As the populations continue to grow, the burros from one area will move to an area with less competition for resources. This means that places like Death Valley become a choice area for grazing, breeding and foal rearing. It also means that a once federally-protected burro is no longer afforded that protection.

How third party organizations are helping

Various groups and organizations such as the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue (PVDR) have stepped in over the years to assist where they can. PVDR has been involved with wild burro management since 2004, and has helped manage excess burros on the lands where they are not federally protected. We use only humane bait and water traps, and do not chase, harass or rope the burros. This allows for a much easier transition into domestic life.

PVDR is currently under contract with the NPS to manage the burro populations in Death Valley National Park, the Mojave National Preserve, Fort Irwin National Training Center, NASA Goldstone Deep Space Communications, and various areas in Arizona and Texas. These ongoing projects will keep burro numbers down and not allow them to repopulate. Various agencies such as the NPS have the authority to use lethal shooting to manage the numbers on their lands, but PVDR’s involvement keeps this from happening.

PVDR’s captured burros are taken to a nearby staging area where a licensed veterinarian draws blood samples to test for common equine diseases. Once cleared, the jennets (females) and foals are taken to PVDR’s Western Regional Facility in Arizona, while the jacks (males) are transported to our main facility in Texas to await castration in the cooler months. All burros are microchipped, and all their personal details including their capture location are recorded in our online data system.

The burros are then assessed for training. If they show an interest in people, they will enter our training program for eventual adoption. If they are still wild and having a difficult time adjusting to their new surroundings, they are placed at one of many sanctuaries where they have a sense of freedom but are still being handled and given medical care and hoof trimming. Currently, 3,500 donkeys are under the care of PVDR, nearly half of which are wild burros. In our 20 years of operation, we’ve rehomed thousands.

The fate of wild burros in America is uncertain. Luckily, new studies are being conducted regarding the benefits these animals may have brought to the region over time – such as the ability to locate underground water sources and dig wells when water is particularly scarce. The public is also becoming aware of the situation and that is incredibly helpful. Donating and volunteering with groups involved in saving, studying and advocating for wild burros is important, as is simply understanding that this is an issue we should all care about. After all, if it weren’t for wild burros, our country may not have not grown the way it did.