Why California's cute, troubled and disruptive wild burros risk causing 'catastrophic damage'

Why California’s cute, troubled and disruptive wild burros risk causing ‘catastrophic damage’

KArin Usko and her husband John Auborn often hike in the mountains north of their home in Ridgrecrest and try to spot wild donkeys. Lately they have noticed the consequences of the ongoing drought in California.

Cute, troubled and problematic: California’s wild burros face drier deserts

“In certain regions where the springs dry up [we’re] see horse carcasses and burros,” Auborn said.

Further east near Needles, a rancher discovered 56 dead donkeys at the mouth of a dry spring in 2010.

As temperatures soared to nearly 120 degrees this summer, the source that burros rely on for water has retreated into the land of the Mojave Desert.

“We don’t want them dying of thirst or doing anything else or even suffering because of it,” said Bureau of Land Management field manager Carl Symons.

Congress named burros and wild horses “living symbols” of the West in 1971 and mandated their protection from capture, harassment and death on public lands.

It’s hard not to find the curious equids with their fuzzy ears endearing. And many do. But they can also mow down vegetation, trample the homes of native species and even disrupt military operations.

Animal numbers have tripled since the 1970s and not everyone agrees on how to bring the population back to what the government considers a sustainable level.

The Bureau of Land Management predicts that if the population is not controlled, there will be “catastrophic damage to the land, to other species, and to the wild horses and donkeys themselves”.

Wild burros at the base of a sunny mountain range in the Panamint Valley in the northeastern part of the Mojave Desert in eastern California.

California has about 3,416 burros on land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, more than seven times what the agency considers appropriate for the state.

(Jesse Plume


Courtesy of the Office of Land Management)

The Origin of the California Burros

The burros that roam California today are likely descended from the sure-footed beasts of burden first brought to the region by Spanish settlers in the 1500s, and later by gold rush gold diggers. ‘gold.

“Many of these burros survived, even though their owners perished in the harsh desert conditions,” according to a Bureau document.

Sometimes donkeys and wild horses were hunted and killed.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 charged the Bureau of Land Management with protecting animals on the public lands it oversees. The agency must balance the needs of animals with those of livestock and native species.

“If we don’t manage the habitat for these animals, they can literally eat each other outside the home and the house,” said Amy Dumas, California Wild Horse and Burro program manager. “We try to avoid that.”

The Bureau calculates what it estimates to be a sustainable number of donkeys for each region based on the availability of food, water, space and the presence of other wild and domesticated animals, such as livestock.

California has about 3,416 burros on Bureau land, more than seven times what the agency considers appropriate for the state.

Several factors make population control difficult. Burros have very few natural predators and herds can double every five years. The scrubby desert vegetation that doesn’t attract many animals makes for a great burro buffet.

The Piute Mountain herd near Needles highlights the difficulty of controlling the population. The Bureau’s management plan calls for zero burros in the area, in part because donkeys compete with bighorn sheep for scarce resources and trample the burrows of endangered desert tortoises.

Yet they persisted for years through at least three different attempts to bring them together, including after the 2010 death.

“We could say we’re going to remove as many animals as possible, and we’re still going to miss them,” Dumas said. In the meantime, new donkeys can come from elsewhere.

Donkeys are also removed when they are considered a “nuisance”. For instance:

  • At the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, donkeys have caused car crashes, damaged equipment, and “created a high potential for runway plane crashes.”
  • A rare earth mining company asked the Bureau to remove the donkeys from its property in Mountain Pass after reporting “severe damage to the property and surrounding landscape” in 2016.
  • In the Inland Empire, cars collide with donkeys on roads and highways, which can be deadly to animals and drivers.
A donkey on the doorstep of a suburban house in the Moreno Valley.  In the background, other donkeys graze the lawn.

Rodney Amans’ Ring doorbell captured this photo of the wild donkeys in the front yard of his Moreno Valley home.

Management is trickier when the burros are not on federal lands and fall outside the Bureau’s jurisdiction.

“I wish there was more protection for the donkeys that are here,” said Moreno Valley resident Rodney Amans, who said his family loves donkeys.

“You…get out of your garage at 5 a.m. to go to work and you have four or five donkeys lying in your front yard,” resident Rodney Amans said. “At Christmas, it’s like a big nativity scene.”

An argument against burros as “invasive”

Much academic research focuses on the negative effects of feral donkeys on the environment, but recent findings show that their presence could benefit native species.

Erick Lundgren, a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University, studied donkeys in the Arizona desert that dig for water in dry stream beds.

“It’s a constant parade of wildlife that goes to drink from these wells,” Lundgran said. “There would be Orioles, squirrels and warblers drinking right around my feet because that would be the only water for miles.”

Cougars in Death Valley National Park eat wild donkeys and in the process change their behavior.

“Donkeys avoid risky areas and spend less time in wetlands and have less impact on vegetation,” Lundgren said.

He said calling donkeys invaders limits what scientists can learn about how they interact with the environment.

“I don’t think we should moralize them back and forth,” Lundgren said. “I think we should just try to understand these organisms and then respect them as we would respect any living thing.”

Control the Burro population

The Bureau of Land Management has experimented with burro birth control, but currently relocation with adoption is the agency’s primary tool for bringing the burro population under control.

Nationwide, the agency rounded up more horses and burros in the last fiscal year than since 1985.

Under a wide open blue sky, a small group of donkeys nibble on sparse grass inside a mammoth enclosure.  Most land is just land.

As of mid-September, there were approximately 400 donkeys and 363 horses in corrals at Ridgecrest. The facility can hold up to 1,000 animals.

More than two-thirds of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s $112 million budget that year was spent caring for animals removed from the range.

“We try to do our best with limited resources, and we can’t make everyone happy,” Dumas said.

Some advocates would like to see America’s donkey management policies fundamentally changed, starting with the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act.

In early October, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona introduced a new version of the 1971 law, which, among other changes, would prioritize fertility control as a way to limit population.

Mark Meyers, CEO of Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, says private rescues like his should play a role in managing animals on public lands.

“My board can make a decision in less than an hour. It doesn’t take one act of Congress for us to shift and pivot and something to happen immediately,” said Meyers, whose group has contracts with the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the army to retire and adopt burros.

A temporary home in Ridgecrest

In Needles, where the donkeys were running out of water this summer, Bureau staff managed to capture about a third of the herd and herd them to the agency’s corrals in Ridgecrest.

A fair-skinned person receives a hug from a dark brown burro.  The animal's eyes are closed and it looks very relaxed as it lays its head on the person's shoulder.

Karin Usko and her donkey Tita Maria share an embrace. “You can feel their peace when you hug them,” she said.

There are hundreds of donkeys waiting to be adopted here. An empty carrot bag near one of the corrals is evidence of what Office Symons say are frequent visits from locals.

Hikers John Auborn and Karin Usko adopted their first burro in 2016 and have since started a nonprofit — California Breakfast Burritos — that trains wild donkeys for adoption.

“I don’t think an animal can hug you any softer than a donkey,” Usko said. “They put the weight of their head on your shoulder and basically fall asleep.”

The group also hosts an annual pack burro race, in which humans team up with donkeys and race between 10 and 26.2 miles through the desert.

“We take them wherever we are invited to go,” Usko said. This includes local high school football games. The school mascot? Donkey.

“We need to find long-term solutions that will support the land the way we want and the wildlife population,” Auborn said. “It’s not easy to find the right solution.”

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