Among the most amazing animals of the desert are wild burros. Yet in the past three years, the Bureau of Land Management has removed more than 5,000 of them from their federally designated habitat. This year, it’s ratcheting up the assault.
What’s wrong with this picture? Lots.
Although the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 considers wild burros and mustangs as protected wildlife, the BLM still treats them like invaders and is bent on eradicating them — despite their immense value.
To say that our country was built on their backs isn’t an understatement. The consummate beast of burden, burros were the original all-terrain vehicles. Some who worked mining underground never saw the light of day.
Research now shows how burros are healers of the dessert. Wildlife biologist Erick Lundgren, along with a team of scientists, just released a study in Science on their water engineering feats in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. These sturdy equids dig wells that are lifelines for myriad plant and animal species. Besides increasing water availability in extreme heat and drought-stricken periods, the wells, when dry, become nurseries that facilitate the growth of pioneer trees and other vegetation.
The National Academy of Sciences sounded the alarm in its 2013 report on the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, recommending no removals for wild burros, whose populations were already small, fragmented, and at risk of inbreeding. A minimum population of 150-200 adult wild equids is essential to maintain genetic variability. Of the 29 herd management areas with wild burros, only three comply with this standard.
Disregarding the danger, the BLM continues massive burro roundups. Today, claiming some 15,000 wild burros remain on public land, the agency aims to reduce the population to its goal of just 2,600.
This summer, the BLM will eliminate wild burros from 1.7 million acres of public land in the Lake Mead area of Nevada near Lundgren’s study area. It started removing wild burros to “zero out” the populations in Centennial and surrounding areas — the last large herds in California. In Arizona’s Black Mountain Herd Management Area, BLM roundups will remove another 500, leaving only one burro per 1,300 acres.
The National Park Service is following suit. Declaring burros are “alien” to desert ecosystems, it will soon rid the Grand Canyon and Death Valley of its long-standing wild burros.
Helicopter roundups are brutal for burros, as they tend to freeze in place or scatter. Many do not survive the long chase, which often comes as foals have just been born. Captive burros are warehoused in crowded holding pens until adopted or sold. Although new owners must vow they won’t send the animals to slaughter, there’s no enforcement after title is transferred, and many end up in kill pens. Skin traders are waiting at the other end as the demand for ejiao, a traditional Chinese medicine derived from donkey hide, is growing worldwide.
What’s behind the drive to extinguish wild burros? Powerful lobbies promoting taxpayer-subsidized livestock ranching and mining and gas encroachment on public lands. Spuriously, the BLM scapegoats wild horses and burros for the failing health of the rangelands and riparian areas that livestock use in far greater numbers, often with devastating effects. The ultimate absurdity can be found in the 2021 appropriations bill now before the House. Seeking $35 million to round up tens of thousands more wild horses and burros, the BLM even claims they contribute to climate change. The bureau knows better.
It’s time to press the reset button. Protecting wild equids and their habitat from commercial exploitation must be a key feature of the Biden administration’s “30 x 30” climate initiative. The BLM is mandated to manage wild burros humanely, not to manage them to extinction.
Solutions are at hand. Place a moratorium on wild horse and burro roundups. Demand a congressional investigation of the BLM’s deeply flawed management policies and practices. Make the Black Mountain Herd Management Area, where vital fertility control research is underway, a wild burro range where livestock are prohibited. Repatriate captive equids to zeroed-out herd areas. And pass the Safeguard American Food Exports Act to prevent all horses and burros from being transported to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.
Mary Koncel is a program specialist for the American Wild Horse Campaign and a faculty fellow at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts/Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
Charlotte Roe is an adviser to the Cloud Foundation and the founder of the Wild Equid League of Colorado. Both have adopted wild horses and burros.