Why California's Cute, Troubled And Disruptive Wild Burros Are In Danger Of Causing 'Catastrophic Harm'
Karin Usko and her husband John Auborn often hike in the mountains north of their Ridgrecrest home and try to spot the wild donkeys. Lately they’ve noticed the consequences of California’s ongoing drought.
“In some areas where the springs are running dry [we’re] seeing carcasses of the horses 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 climbed to almost 120 degrees this summer, the spring the burros rely on for water receded into the Mojave Desert earth.
“We don't want them to die of thirst or do anything else or even suffer because of that reason,” said Bureau of Land Management Field Manager Carl Symons.
Congress named wild burros and 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, fuzzy-eared equids endearing. And many do. But they can also mow down vegetation, stomp on the homes of native species and even disrupt military operations.
The animals’ numbers have tripled since the '70s and not everyone agrees on how to bring down the population to what the government considers a sustainable level.
The Bureau of Land Management predicts if the population isn’t controlled there will be “catastrophic harm to the land, to other species, and to wild horses and burros themselves.”
The Origin Of California’s Burros
The burros roaming California today likely descended from the sure-footed pack animals first brought to the area by Spanish colonists in the 1500s, and later, by Gold Rush fortune seekers.
“Many of these burros survived, even though their owners perished under the harsh desert conditions,” according to a Bureau document.
Sometimes wild donkeys and horses were hunted and killed.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 tasked the Bureau of Land Management with protecting the animals on the public lands it oversees. The agency has to balance the animals’ needs with those of livestock and native species.
“If we don't manage the habitat for these animals, they literally can eat themselves out of house and home,” said California Wild Horse and Burro Program Manager Amy Dumas. “We're trying to avoid that.”
The Bureau calculates what it believes is a sustainable number of donkeys for each region based on the availability of food, water, space, and the presence of other animals both wild and domestic, like cattle.
California has an estimated 3,416 burros on Bureau land — more than seven times what the agency considers appropriate for the state.
There are several factors that make it hard to keep the population under control. The burros have very few natural predators and herds can double every five years. Scrubby desert vegetation that’s unappealing to many animals makes for a fine burro buffet.
The Piute Mountain herd near Needles underscores the difficulty of keeping the population in check. The Bureau’s management plan calls for zero burros in the area in part because the donkeys compete with Bighorn Sheep for scarce resources and trample the burrows of threatened desert tortoises.
Yet they’ve persisted for years through at least three different attempts to round them up— including after 2010’s die-off.
“We could say that we're going to remove as many animals as we can, and we're still going to miss them,” Dumas said. In the meantime, new donkeys can wander in from elsewhere.
The donkeys are also removed when deemed a “nuisance.” For example:
- At the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake donkeys have caused car accidents, damaged equipment, and “created a high potential for aircraft accidents on runways.”
- A rare earth mining company called on the Bureau to remove 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 freeways, which can be deadly to both animals and drivers.
Management is trickier where burros are not on federal land and fall outside the Bureau’s purview.
“I wish that there was more protection for the donkeys that are out here,” said Moreno Valley resident Rodney Amans, who said his family adores the donkeys.
"You … walk out your garage at 5 o'clock in the morning to go to work and you got four or five donkeys laying in your front yard,” said resident Rodney Amans. “During Christmas it's like a big nativity scene."
An Argument Against Burros As ‘Invasive’
Much of the academic research focuses on the ways wild donkeys negatively impact the environment, but recent findings show their presence could benefit native species.
Aarhus University postdoctoral researcher Erick Lundgren has studied donkeys in the Arizona desert that dig down to water in dry streambeds.
“It's a constant parade of wildlife going to drink from these wells,” Lundgran said. “There would be Orioles and squirrels and warblers coming in to drink right around my feet because it'd be the only water for miles.”
Mountain lions in Death Valley National Park eat wild donkeys, and in doing so are changing their behavior.
“The donkeys avoid areas that are risky and spend less time at wetlands and have less impacts on vegetation,” Lundgren said.
He said labeling the donkeys as invaders limits what scientists can learn about how they interact with the environment.
“I don't think we should moralize them at all in either direction,” Lundgren said. “I think we should just try to understand these organisms and then respect them as we would respect any living being.”
Controlling The Burro Population
The Bureau of Land Management has experimented with burro birth control, but right now relocation along with adoption is the agency’s main tool for reining in the burro population.
Across the country, the agency rounded up more horses and burros in the last fiscal year than in any since 1985.
More than two-thirds of the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s $112 million budget that year went toward caring for animals removed from the range.
“We're trying to do the best we can with limited resources, and we can't make everybody happy,” Dumas said.
Some advocates would like to see the U.S.’s burro management policies fundamentally changed, starting with the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act.
In early October, House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva of Arizona introduced a new version of the 1971 act, which among other changes would prioritize fertility control as a way to limit the population.
Mark Meyers, CEO of Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, says private rescues like his should play a role in the management of animals on public land.
“My board of directors can make a decision within an hour. It doesn't take an act of Congress for us to change and pivot and make something happen immediately," said Meyers, whose group contracts with the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the military to remove and adopt out burros.
A Temporary Home In Ridgecrest
In Needles, where donkeys were running out of water this summer, Bureau staff managed to capture about one-third of the herd and drive them to the agency’s corrals in Ridgecrest.
There are hundreds of burros waiting to be adopted here. An empty carrot bag near one of the corrals is evidence of what the Bureau’s Symons says are frequent visits from locals.
Hikers John Auborn and Karin Usko adopted their first burro in 2016 and have since started a non-profit — California Breakfast Burritos — that trains wild donkeys to be adopted out.
“I don't think any animal can hug you sweeter 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 pair up with donkeys and run between 10 and 26.2 miles through the desert.
“We take them anywhere we are invited to go,” Usko said. That includes the local high school’s football games. The school’s mascot? The burro.
“We need to find long-term solutions that will support the land the way we want it to be and the wild population of animals,” Auborn said. “It's not an easy thing to come up with the right solution.”
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