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Creature Feature: Feral Burros are "Equina Non Grata" in the National Parks
Guys who holler “watch this!” just before they do something incredibly stupid aren’t the only jackasses in our national parks. We’ve got the real kind too, and where there are feral burros the habitat is degraded and native wildlife is deprived of vital resources.
The long-ago ancestors of the donkey (Equus asinus) were wild asses that lived in the deserts of northeastern Africa. The modern domesticated variety (which can be black, brown, or gray in color) has the toughness and adaptability you’d expect from an animal that nature fine-tuned to thrive in harshly arid surroundings.
Because it can carry heavy burdens, cope with hot and dry conditions (tolerating water loss up to 30% of body weight), and forage for its own food, the donkey has long been one of humankind’s most important domesticated animals. The wild ass was tamed and put to work in Egypt and Mesopotamia at least 5,400 years ago. Jesus’ mother famously rode one to Bethlehem a little over 2,000 years ago.
Europeans quite naturally brought donkeys with them when they came to the New World. The Spanish in particular found them invaluable when they began exploring and establishing missions and settlements in the subtropical deserts and semi-deserts of northern Mexico and the American Southwest during the 1500s. The domesticated donkey is still known in this part of the world by its Spanish name, burro.
Like the explorers and pioneers who went before, itinerant prospectors and miners of the 1800s and early 1900s took burros with them wherever they went. Burros were still doing plenty of hauling in the American West as late as the 1930s, and are still a common beast of burden in rural Mexico.
Because they are tough as nails and need little in the way of human nurturing, burros characteristically have not been corralled or tethered in the manner of horses. Historically, the usual practice was to leave them to forage on the range and pretty much fend for themselves. Owners just rounded them up when they needed them.
For one reason or another, many burros were never rounded up. Some escaped. Some outlived their owners. (The desert can, after all, be very unforgiving.) Lots of burros “went wild.”
The population of free roaming burros increased quickly, and small wonder. Burros are not heavily preyed upon (they are said to have “no natural enemies”), can live up to 40 years, and are good reproducers (a wild jenny typically produces one foal a year). In good conditions population can double in less than three years.
Today about 20,000 wild burros inhabit the desert Southwest. Some hundreds of others inhabit other locales, including places as far flung as central Idaho and the Virgin Islands.
The burro is best suited to live in the wide open spaces of the four great western deserts – the Sonoran, Mojave, Chihuahuan, and Great Basin. This means that California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada will continue to have the great majority of America’s wild burros.
Burros find some kinds of habitat more amenable than others, but they can exist in a remarkable variety of environments as long as there is water not more than ten miles away. There are free roaming burro populations in pinyon-juniper, montane chaparral, and high pasture environments as well as in desert scrub and desert riparian/wash habitats and areas with bitterbrush, sagebrush, Joshua tree, or other vegetative combinations.
Most feral burros live on public lands, especially the vast stretches of dry BLM land and wildlife preserves. Hundreds live in national parks.
Because of its large size and superior adaptability, the burro tends to be a problem species for land managers in the arid and semiarid Southwest. Where there are feral burros, the habitat is invariably degraded and native fauna are deprived of vital food, water, and living space. It is no stretch to say that feral burros destabilize the ecosystems they inhabit and can throw them into severe disarray if their numbers go unchecked.
An adult feral burro stands about five feet high at the shoulders and weighs around 350 pounds. It eats three tons of food a year. That includes a lot of grasses, browse, and forbs meant to sustain a web of life that evolved and came into balance long before this non-native animal was introduced.
The impact on desert ecosystems can be shocking. With the size and density of shrubs and other plants reduced, bighorn sheep, mule deer, and other large grazers dwindle in number and get pushed toward less accommodating habitat. Rodents and other small mammals become far less abundant, leaving bobcats, coyotes, badgers, snakes, and other predators harder pressed to make a living. In the leanest times – the peak of summer heat and aridity in the desert – the burros are an acute competitor and a crushing burden on many forms of desert life. Bighorn sheep won’t even come in to drink at a waterhole when burros are there.
In exquisitely balanced desert and semi-desert ecosystems, where everything is connected to everything else through the flow of energy and cycling of nutrients, no element is left unaltered by the presence of feral burros. There are no exceptions. Even tortoises find it harder to find food and dig their burrows in burro-disturbed areas.
If you’ve ever hiked in terrain shared by feral burros, you know that their grazing and browsing habits are not the only cause of unwanted ecosystem change. The untrained eye has no trouble discerning the evidence of their presence. Burros create distinct trails, trample vegetation, compact the soil in areas where they congregate (especially waterholes and shady resting places), and leave substantial deposits of feces and urine. The long-eared buggers may be comical in appearance, but the damage they do is anything but funny.
Which brings us to the matter of feral burros in the national parks. If you investigate the history of burro management in the National Park System – and mind you, that includes not only the Southwestern deserts and semi-deserts, but also atypical places like the Channel Islands of California and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean – you find ambivalence, confusion, frustration, and even subterfuge and comedy.
In general, the NPS has wanted to rid the parks of burros, but the public has not. And whereas managers would rather use culling to get rid of the darn things (call it the quick, efficient, and cheap approach), animal protection organizations have demanded the use of non-lethal methods (call it the slow, inefficient, and expensive approach). This is a recipe for confrontation, of course, and there has been a good bit of that.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (Public Law 92-195) that Congress passed in 1971 gave feral burros permanent tenancy on most Western public lands, but specifically exempted national parks and wildlife refuges.
Have you ever wondered about the political power of animal rights activists, equine boosters, and lovers of cute animals everywhere? Consider the wording of this legislation’s preamble:
….. Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
Despite various impediments, the past three decades have seen a lot of progress in eliminating or sharply reducing burro populations in various national parks. Four examples will suffice to show that different circumstances have prompted different approaches to the feral burro problem.
Many Grand Canyon National Park visitors are old enough to recall the heartwarming story of the little burro “Brighty” (did you read the 1953 classic Brighty of the Grand Canyon? did you see the 1967 movie of the same name?). Upon arriving at the park, many of these Brighty fans are shocked to learn that there are no more feral burros in the park. In fact, pursuant to a carefully worked out plan, the last of the park’s wild burros were captured and relocated 30 years ago.
Some of those burros captured in remote terrain were transported via helicopter short haul, dangling in slings and looking mighty ridiculous. Animal rights advocates paid most of the costs.
Over at San Miguel Island, the westernmost of the eight islands in Channel Islands National Park, today’s visitors will not see any feral burros. Not seeing them, they will not be prompted to ask: “What happened to the wild burros that used to be here.” And no ranger will have to reveal an inconvenient truth: “They’re not here because we killed them.” Yup; rangers shot every last burro on San Miguel, even though they did not have permission from higher ups and ended up getting reprimanded. (Hey; isn’t it almost always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission?) The last one shot was a jenny that may well have been pregnant. (Hey, you do what you have to do.)
People who illegally kill threatened and endangered animals call the method employed at San Miguel the “shoot, shovel, and shut up” solution. The NPS does not approve of it, and neither does any other Federal agency. The bottom line, however, is this: There are no more feral burros on San Miguel Island.
Have you ever visited Virgin Islands National Park? If so, you may have seen some of the feral burros that prowl the place. Back in 1996, researchers conducted a complicated, expensive study in the park to help determine whether this pest species could be controlled with immunocontraceptive technology. A methodology that prevents wild jennies from producing foals has a lot to say for it as a public relations effort, even if it is certain to be slow and expensive. In case you may have forgotten, burros can live 40 years.
The bottom line here is that immunocontraceptive technology for feral equines is still in the developmental stage and wild burros still inhabit Virgin Islands National Park.
Over at Death Valley National Park, some 400 or 500 burros live in the park’s 3.4 million acres of desert and mountain terrain. You might be tempted to think that there’s room for half a thousand wild donkeys in 3.4 million acres, nearly all of which is federally protected wilderness, but for reasons already explained this is simply not the case. As several writers have put it, the burros are “equina non grata.”
Back in the 1980s the NPS spent around $400,000 to build a burro-proof fence along 32 miles of the park’s northeastern border. This ecological Maginot Line can scarcely be called a resounding success, since burros are still entering the western part of the park from BLM land and military bases.
It will eventually cost a small fortune to achieve the zero burros goal in Death Valley. The cost of capturing the animals is only the tip of the iceberg. Helicopters used for short hauling burros in remote areas set the NPS back about $1,000 an hour when all costs are factored in. Add in the cost of trucking, feeding, veterinary care, neutering, and adoption (handled through BLM), and the cost per animal is downright sobering.
Will we ever see the day when the last feral burro is removed from the national parks? I’m not sure, but I think we can safely say this: It will not be for lack of trying.
Postscript: Around forty years ago, a bronze statue of Brighty left over from the movie production was placed on display in the visitor center at Grand Canyon National Park. Tens of thousands of kids stopped to rub the statue's nose (which ended up very shiny). Officials removed the statue after concluding that it would be unseemly to display a kid-friendly burro at the same time the NPS was striving to eliminate burros from the park forever. The park received 17,000 letters on the burro removal, many of them from school kids (put up to it by their teachers?), pleading the burros' case. It was a bit of a pr disaster. BTW, the whereabouts of the statue is apparently unknown. Has anyone seen Brighty?
Now, if you're ready for something really different ........ visit this site. If viewing and listening to this little bit of donkey insanity doesn't put a smile on your face, you are beyond hope.