Wild Burros; Tough Survivors Face Harsh Landscape and Hostile Management

It's easy to fall in love with Bernadette, Valerie and Wee Willy, three wild burros, adopted earlier this year from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Their charismatic personalities and occasional, delightful brays are enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. Yet, their stories paint a picture of broken promises to animals whose historical significance rivals that of their wild horse cousins.

Modern burros are descendants of wild African asses. Their domestication, estimated to have occurred perhaps as many as 8,000 years ago, was the beginning of a tale of grueling use and abuse that continues in many parts of the world today. They arrived in North America with the Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago, but even their journey to the New World was fraught with maltreatment. Burros and horses were hoisted in hammocks on small ships with only their hind feet touching the floor. At sea, water and food frequently became scarce, particularly when calm winds lengthened voyages. In order to conserve water in times of need, animals were thrown overboard. This callous practice presaged the dreadful fate of countless burros centuries later in their new home.

These gentle “beasts of burden” helped to explore and settle early America. In 1896, the popular western chronicler, Charles F. Lummis, praised the burro’s extraordinary contribution to the settlement efforts: “Two-thirds of the New World would hardly have been civilized yet, without him [the burro].” Sure-footed, adaptable, and well-suited to arid environments, burros labored in mines and fields, towing people and equipment, hauling ore, wood and water, pulling plows and water wheels, and guarding sheep. Most closely associated with miners and prospectors, burros were ever-present as they trudged into inhospitable territories in search of mineral treasures. Capable of surviving on little water, the service of burros to pack all sorts of commercial merchandise long distances over difficult terrain proved indispensable. At least it did for a time.

Eventually prospectors died or quit, and modern transportation technologies like the “iron horse” supplanted the need for the “iron burro.” When their usefulness was exhausted, once again burros were tossed out, not to flounder at sea, but to fend for themselves in a remote, harsh desert environment. Victims of abandonment, but no longer subject to servitude, burros reverted to natural, wild behavior and adapted well to their new free status.

Their populations flourished, much to the chagrin of ranchers who perceived them as competitors of livestock for valuable forage and water. Sport hunters preferred bighorn sheep, mule deer and pronghorns to burros, and resented the burros’ presence, despite evidence that competition between the species was and remains, for the most part, minimal. Consequently, hunters, like ranchers, wanted them gone.

As time passed, the political controversy escalated. Ranchers, along with government officials responding to the demands of the livestock community, declared war on the animals. They were shot, poisoned, and driven over cliffs to their deaths. Once highly valued for their backs and brawn to carry heavy loads, burros were now rounded up for their bodies to be butchered and processed into dog food.

Pro-burro advocates attempted to stop the massacre, but with limited success. For example, in California, a law was passed in 1939 to make it illegal to capture or kill burros for animal food, but did not prevent their carcasses from being processed into meat for human consumption, nor did it prohibit shooting burros for “sport.” In 1953, an amendment outlawed killing wild burros for any reason, and four years later the California legislature declared the animals to be property of the state. Unfortunately, this concern for burro welfare did not extend to other states, and for years the animals were afforded no federal protections whatsoever.

Finally after enormous public outcry over the mass slaughter of both wild burros and horses, Congress passed the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA), which acknowledged the animals’ historical and cultural significance and the integral role they play in natural ecosystems. The law was intended to provide the animals protection where they were then found on public lands under the jurisdiction of the BLM and the US Forest Service. However, this protection did not extend to other federally managed lands. Nothing could be a better example of the consequences of this legal exclusion than the animals’ plight on National Park Service (NPS) lands, where they were considered an “exotic” species and targeted for removal. Thousands of wild burros inhabiting the Grand Canyon region had already been killed earlier in the 20th century, and in 1979, NPS officials proposed shooting the few hundred remaining burros.

What made the heartless policy and proposal even more repugnant was the fact that a legendary burro served as a much-loved symbol of the Grand Canyon. Immortalized as Brighty of the Grand Canyon in a 1953 book by award-winning author Marguerite Henry and in the 1966 film of the same name by filmmaker Stephen Booth, the story recorded the life of Bright Angel, who lived and roamed freely on the North Rim of the canyon from around 1892 to 1922. Brighty, as he was known, helped to haul water to the first tourist lodgings on the North Rim for a reward of pancakes. He assisted in the dangerous construction of the first Kaibab suspension bridge across the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon and even toted Teddy Roosevelt’s packs during a hunting excursion. In the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim, there is a life-size bronze statue of Brighty by sculptor Peter Jepson. According to folklore, rubbing Brighty’s nose brings good luck.

Whether Brighty’s nose was as polished then as it is now is unknown, but the Park Service’s shooting proposal triggered a daring rescue attempt by animal advocate, Cleveland Amory, to airlift the burros out of the canyon and out of harm’s way. Thankfully, the high-profile operation proved successful and helped to focus media exposure on wild burros who had not received the same level of attention as had wild horses. Even after all this, the Park Service remains relentless in pursuing its zero tolerance policy for wild burros. How burros can be protected as “wild” on one side of an artificially drawn boundary and “exotic” on the other makes no sense. Yet, our elected and governmental officials have failed to see the folly and animal welfare implications of such arbitrary policies.

In point of fact, however, wild burros have fared only minimally better on lands where they are entitled to protection. In 2000, the BLM stated its goal of reducing wild burro populations by nearly 80 percent from their 1971 numbers—a little over 14,000 animals, after thousands had already been killed prior to passage of the WFHBA—to a high population target (referred to as an “appropriate management level,” or AML) of a mere 2,923 animals.

Of the original 54 Herd Areas (HAs) identified in 1971 as places where burros lived in the wild, four were transferred to the Park Service in their entirety as part of the East Mojave National Preserve. As they were now on NPS land, these burros were denied legal protection. In 18 more HAs, all burros were slated for removal. Lands transferred to the Park Service and the zeroing out of Herd Areas due to other management considerations translate into approximately a 45 percent reduction in wild burro habitat.

Today, wild burros are managed in only 31 Herd Management Areas (HMAs)—areas within HAs where the burros are to be managed and allowed to remain. Most of these HMAs are considerably smaller in acreage than their originally designated HAs.

Since 1971, wild burros have been evicted from millions of acres of public lands, and now the BLM would have the public believe that more than 6 million acres of land can support less than 3,000 wild burros.

To make matters worse, several herds are isolated and managed at such low numbers that the burros’ health and long-term genetic viability are seriously compromised. For example, there is only one burro herd in the entire state of Oregon, with a paltry AML of 25 animals. Two of only six remaining HMAs in California, Lee Flat and Piper Mountain, have AMLs set at unsustainable levels of 11 and 82 animals respectively—but no wild burros exist in either area, regardless. Wild burros and our national heritage are literally vanishing right before our eyes.

Wild freedom for these animals, who can live 40–50 years, is frequently short-lived. Concerns about reckless management fall on deaf ears as the BLM continues to remove hundreds of wild burros from their home on the range each year. Bernadette and Valerie, both only three years old when captured, were held at taxpayer expense for more than a year and a half before they found an adopted home. During that time, the inadvertent introduction of a male burro into holding with females resulted in Wee Willy being born a few months after Valerie was adopted. Of additional concern is the BLM’s apparent failure to even record Bernadette’s and Valerie’s removals on its public information website where the agency lists such actions. In fact, BLM’s record-keeping has been the subject of numerous inquiries by advocates, who have uncovered several deficiencies and omissions over the years.

Just as wild horses should be celebrated for their proud splendor, wild burros deserve to be respected for their dignified grace and amazing resilience. Looking into the soulful eyes of these three intelligent animals spotlights the traitorous treatment that they and their kindred have suffered at human hands. We can find loving homes for them, but their real homes, just like their equine cousins, are in the wild with their own kind. Making that happen depends on the voices of people who care. As former BLM director, Boyd Rasmussen, one of those pro-burro voices, stated quite simply in 1967: “They belong.” 

Andrea Lococo is a wildlife consultant for AWI, and senior lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Louisville.

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