The Unseen Ecology of the Wild Burro

by Erick Lundgren   as published on Indiegogo

“We are not soliciting funds for this study nor are we fiscally supporting this but we DO believe that this research bears looking at in more details as the BLM treats the wild burros far worse than they mismanage wild horses…hard to believe, but they manage to do it.  Good read!” ~ R.T.

New perspectives on wild burro ecology

In brief:

  • Wild introduced burros dig wells of more than a meter deep to reach subterranean water in the Sonoran desert.
  • Several species use these wells for drinking water
  • This behavior has never been described in the literature, likely due to prevailing negative attitudes towards introduced species
  • My research is motivated by the desire to understand these species as they are – and may reveal novel ecological relationships.

Wild Burro WellFour years ago I was camping on a beautiful river in the Sonoran desert of Arizona. This river winds through a brutally gorgeous landscape that looks like melted wax; old multicolored volcanic debris, steep canyons, saguaros and cottonwoods. As a field biologist, I was becoming interested in how ecologists understand and describe invasive species. I was beginning to realize that to demonize a species because it doesn’t belong may prevent us from seeing what it actually does. It was on this trip that I began seeing, after years of working and camping on this river without noticing, these strange features: wells.

Three years later, I have documented the origin of these wells, and confirmed my suspicions: burros dig wells. Burro well-digging has never been described in the scientific literature. Burros are introduced species that are commonly described by the scientific community as “scourges”. Nearly all primary scientific effect-studies about them focus on how burros overgraze and outcompete native species. Yet these studies have failed to yield generalizable understandings because of weak methodologies and their failure to consider the ecological context of apex predator control. This is the essentialist paradigm that this well-digging phenomena  forcefully brings into question.

I am now doing my PhD research on this phenomena, which connects to a growing body of scientific thought that is shifting our paradigms about introduced/invasive species. As this paradigm changes conservation biology may transition from a field focused in many ways on ‘belonging’ and ‘nativity’ to one focused on process and ecological context.

From my preliminary data, it appears that burros are significantly increasing water access across the desert. I have found sites that are very arid, with limited and seasonal surface water, where burro-wells maintain access to subterranean water throughout the year. Furthermore, in certain contexts, these burro-wells appear to function as vegetation nurseries; significantly more cottonwood and willow seedlings germinated in abandoned burro-wells than in adjacent riverbank zones.

With a small grant from ASU I was able to buy several trail cameras and have documented 13 species using these wells, including bighorn sheep, and I am surely missing many smaller bodied species. In fact, javelina and cattle appear to use these wells at a greater frequency than even burros…(CONTINUED)


  1. Indeed a great read and so enlightening. My though is the wells were visiable. Who did they think dug them before your field study revealed this? Burros have always been treated like trash. Like they have no value. Horses will also dig in the soil, but it doesn’t appear like the Burros. I hate to say but the BLM will make some bs about the Burros taking water from the range which effects the Welfare Ranchers livestock. Animals will do what they have to just to survive. Great article- I hope ASU will give him more grants to continue his study proving the value of the poor little Burros. I love them…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hear you loud and clear Gail. These little creatures are very industrious. I think that they have more sense than man any day of the week..

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is the video that Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake and other congressmen and statesmen who oppose the preservation of our wild burros have to watch. Hell, these animals are even benefiting CATTLE and BIGHORN SHEEP. Erick hit it on the nose. Some individuals post labels on introduced and reintroduced species like “invasive species” without examining their behaviors to see whether or not they actually have at least some positive impact to our ecosystem. Even if you call them “non-natives”, there’s something that everyone seems to forget: honeybees aren’t native to the US, yet TONS of people are advocating their conservation. How and when did a burro’s life become less valuable than an insect’s?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The burros have always been misunderstood and considered worthless by BLM.

    From 1977 BLM Report (excerpt)
    “…evidence exists that wild burro densities could be reduced, through IMPROPER management and control, to a level that might lead to their extinction either locally or nationally … Once the population density of a particular species drops below this level, the species is doomed to extinction regardless of efforts to save it.”
    This report also states that there were 5183 wild burros on public lands (BLM) in 1977 and yet the BLM has adjusted the AML to 2920 today. They need their legal lands and resources back (and their AML re-adjusted back upwards) as Congress clearly stated.
    “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 [1971].


  5. Just thinking out loud …

    The public land that the burros live on used to be considered worthless and “only good for rattlesnakes” in most people’s point of view, so some but not a lot of “management” was done – or so it seems to me from my reading. Then, as the land became more valuable for solar, geothermal, mining, pipelines, tar shale, OHV, trophy hunting and livestock (livestock is not “new” use but it allows for $ subsidies and therefore more valuable) and subdivisions and even gambling (as with the Bullhead/Havasu big gambling hotels) the burros were “in the way”.
    What to do?
    All these above listed uses have big lobbyists and politicians in their pockets … bought and paid for … so “favors” started being called in from these politicians by the big organizations which included acquiring the land and resources which as a side line included getting rid of the burros. They don’t care about the burros one way or the other … all they care about is money in their pockets and the burros were in the way so needed to “go” and if it wasn’t for the ACT and for people speaking up for burros, I doubt there would be any (but just a few hidden in the hills) left at all. That is why we must continue to write public comments and keep talking and talking and spreading the word about the wild ones … because even though it often seems hopeless, if we didn’t speak up it would be far worse than it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As always GG your thinking is right on! Until there’s $$ sign’s attached, it’s worthless, even tho it’s actually priceless in so, so many ways!! Everything has it’s place in the puzzle!


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