Winter 2017

The Burro Quandary

By Nicolas Brulliard
Photograph by © MINDEN PICTURES

Wild donkeys are cute but destructive, and park officials don’t know what to do with them.

To see Death Valley National Park’s largest animal, your best bet is to head west on California state Route 190, exit the park, drive 25 miles to the small town of Olancha, and then take a meandering dirt road through cattle pastures toward the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. There, in several corrals overlooking Owens Valley and the Panamint Range, you’ll find dozens of burros that used to roam the arid mountains surrounding Death Valley.

The burros are an invasive species. Park officials say they take a huge toll on the park’s ecosystem because they consume large amounts of vegetation and hog the water that vulnerable native species need to survive the harsh climate.

“They have impacts that are not acceptable,” said Linda Manning, a wildlife biologist at Death Valley. “They’re just not appropriate for the park.” And so as early as the 1930s, park managers started rounding up, trapping and occasionally shooting burros. Many ended up in sanctuaries like this one, Diana Chontos’ Wild Burro Rescue.

These donkeys don’t seem to mind the change. They never lack clean water, they eat copious amounts of hay and they receive a level of care they wouldn’t dream of on the range. Step into their enclosure and a bunch will quickly surround you on all sides and just stay there — not begging for food but apparently eager for human contact. Though they have space to run, they tend to move at a slow, cautious pace, and the refuge at times feels like a senior living community. Many animals eat “senior feed” and receive dietary supplements. When we drove up one morning, Chontos, their lone caretaker, was giving a leg massage to a female burro suffering from arthritis. 

Burros — the Spanish word for “donkeys” used throughout the West to refer to the wild equines — tend to live longer in captivity, and the Death Valley exiles are getting up in years. Echo, the foal of a pregnant burro Chontos adopted long ago, is now 30 years old. But even though they’re well cared for, they’re not eternal. “I lost quite a few of these girls — eight or 10 this winter,” Chontos said. “You just come some mornings to feed them and they’re gone.”

While the number of Chontos’ burros is dwindling — she now has about 200, the majority rescued from Death Valley — their wild brethren in the park are flourishing. The National Park Service, in part for lack of funding, hasn’t conducted any major removal efforts for the past 12 years, leaving the few remaining burros to reproduce freely and quickly. With no natural predator except the occasional mountain lion, a burro herd can double in size in four to five years. Perhaps more important, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies that manage herds of burros on lands surrounding the park can’t keep up with the animals’ high reproduction rate either. When those burros run out of forage, they head for Death Valley’s tasty native grasses, competing with native animals such as bighorn sheep. Nearby Mojave National Preserve and Lake Mead National Recreation Area also are seeing their burro populations grow.

Another problem for the Park Service is that even when money to capture donkeys trickles in, the agency has few places to take the animals after rounding them up. And although they are allowed to shoot burros, park rangers are reluctant to do that. One reason, Manning said, is that they hate to kill healthy animals. They also know visitors often perceive burros as cute and harmless creatures and wouldn’t understand the need for drastic actions to remove them. 

“Often the general public sees the burros as part of the experience,” said Andrew Munoz, a Park Service spokesman. Meanwhile, burros multiply and threaten the parks’ ecosystems. And so once again, wildlife officials in Death Valley and other parks in the region are wondering what to do with their burros.

Given the burros’ ancestry, it’s no surprise that they would feel at home in the desert of the Southwest. Donkeys are believed to have been first domesticated about 5,000 years ago in Egypt or the Middle East. Their existing wild relative, the African wild ass, currently inhabits the dry lands of the Horn of Africa. Introduced to America by the Spaniards in the 1500s, burros became a pack animal of choice for missionaries and miners. Starting in the mid-19th century, “single-blanket jackass prospectors” flocked to Death Valley and other parts of the West. Their dreams of gold and silver gone bust, they left behind ghost towns — and many of their burros.

It didn’t take long for the burros to overstay their welcome. In its 1920 report to the president, the Department of the Interior sounded the alarm about the “burro evil” in Grand Canyon, where the animals destroyed trails and had “increased to such an extent that they form a veritable pest, denuding the plateaus of grass and other forage so that wild game such as antelope has been forced out.” The Interior Department warned that “radical steps” would have to be taken in the near future. Over the following five decades, thousands of burros were shot in Grand Canyon and Death Valley.

The burros received a major reprieve in 1971 with the passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The law came about mostly over concerns that mustangs were fast disappearing from the West, but burros were afforded the same protections. The law applied only to horses and burros on lands managed by the BLM and the Forest Service — not the Park Service — but the public pressure that brought about the law applied to parks just the same. And by then, one particular burro had garnered widespread sympathy for its fellow national park donkeys.

Winter 2017 Burro Book cover
“Brighty of the Grand Canyon” by Marguerite Henry inspired young readers to write to the National Park Service in defense of burros.

Brighty the burro was first discovered near Bright Angel Creek at the bottom of Grand Canyon in 1890, but it wasn’t until 1953 when children’s book author Marguerite Henry published “Brighty of the Grand Canyon,” a fictionalized account of the free-spirited burro’s adventures, that the donkey achieved celebrity status. A movie based on the book came out a few years before Grand Canyon resumed its campaign to eradicate burros, and the Park Service soon found itself mired in a public-relations nightmare. It was easy for burro advocates to paint the donkeys as sweet, defenseless victims; the Park Service had a much harder time convincing people that they were destructive. A statue of Brighty donated by the film producer was quietly moved from a visitor center to storage, but incensed children started writing park officials to ask them not to shoot burros and to bring back the statue. The agency relented and began working with private organizations to take in the undesirable burros. In one spectacular operation in 1979, the nonprofit Fund for Animals used helicopters to airlift more than 500 burros out of Grand Canyon. The park is now virtually burro-free.

Brighty’s statue also resurfaced. These days, it sits in the sunroom of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Death Valley adopted a three-phase approach: First, round up as many burros as possible and offer them for adoption; second, let nonprofit organizations remove burros themselves; and third, as a last resort, shoot stragglers. It is through the Fund for Animals that Chontos adopted her first two Death Valley burros. Both were pregnant and before long, she had two adorable baby burros. “I smiled so much for the first year my face hurt,” she said. Within a few years, she had quit her job, embarked on a 500-mile trek with her burros to promote their cause, adopted more burros and moved to the Death Valley area. Chontos would prefer burros stay in Death Valley, but she’s also part of the solution to the problem. Soon, she was cooperating with the Park Service to remove up to 100 burros a year from the park. These operations stopped when funding ran out and haven’t resumed since.

It’s nearly impossible to say how many burros currently live in national parks. They typically inhabit remote areas, and their brown or gray coats blend with the landscape, making them difficult to spot in aerial surveys. In any case, those surveys are rare, so park managers often have to rely on outdated counts and their gut feelings to estimate burro populations. When Jenny Powers, a wildlife veterinarian with the Park Service, collected the available data on burros in national parks four years ago, she found that as many as 2,000 burros resided on park land. “I suspect the numbers are much higher,” she said. Most of the burros are found in the West, but other parks, including Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, also have small populations.

Manning estimates that between 750 and 2,000 burros now roam Death Valley. That might not seem like a lot of donkeys in a 3.4-million-acre park, but water and forage are scarce, and park officials say native species such as bighorn sheep struggle to compete with these large herbivores. What’s more, droppings and sightings in various parts of the park indicate the animals’ range is expanding. Nearby Mojave National Preserve might have more than 1,000 burros living in it, said Neal Darby, the park’s wildlife biologist.

In many ways, the battle to contain the burros is being waged — and lost — outside of park boundaries. Much of the land surrounding national parks in the arid West is managed by the BLM and other federal entities. A 34-mile burro-proof fence protects Death Valley’s northeastern corner, but nothing prevents burros from wandering into the park from the west or the south. 

With a few exceptions, such as Theodore Roosevelt National Park and Assateague Island National Seashore where wild horses are deemed culturally significant, wild horses and donkeys are viewed as invasive species and not tolerated in national parks. But the Bureau of Land Management has a different mandate: It has been tasked by Congress to protect these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

That places the BLM in a difficult position: It is required to maintain healthy numbers of wild burros on the range and limited in the actions it can take to prevent the populations from expanding beyond what the habitat can support. When burros exceed so-called appropriate management levels in a particular area, the BLM is supposed to haul the animals to nearby government stables and offer them for adoption. 

But these roundups are not straightforward affairs. The BLM says the most humane approach is to use helicopters and wranglers to herd burros toward corrals, but sometimes the animals are hurt in the process. On rare occasions, they die. As a result, this strategy has become the target of burro advocates. 

The BLM faces other challenges. Though burros make great companion pets and guard animals and the adoption fee is only $125, high hay prices, a more urbanized population and the economic downturn have kept many would-be adopters away. (Chontos said she spends $10,000 each month on hay alone to feed her burros.) With fuller pens and tight space, the BLM can’t take as many burros off the range as it would like. 

And so the population of feral burros keeps expanding. These days, nearly 12,000 burros wander on BLM lands — the majority in Arizona, California and Nevada. In California, where Death Valley and Mojave National Preserve are located, burro numbers increased by 76 percent over the past two years. An additional 1,000 or so are held in corrals and long-term pastures, waiting to be adopted. “We’re trying to do what we can with the tools we have and the funding that we have,” BLM Deputy Director Steven Ellis told a congressional panel in June.

Occasionally, burros can be helpful. In 2015, a lost hiker in Death Valley followed a group of them to a watering hole and was able to survive for several days until rescue arrived. And Erick Lundgren, a biologist with Arizona State University, found that burros can dig small wells that provide water to as many as 20 species of birds and mammals. In addition, cottonwoods, willows and other vegetation sprout in abandoned burro wells. 

But many biologists say that overall, the animals, which weigh more than 350 pounds on average, are a potentially devastating force. One study found that Death Valley burros ate a disproportionate amount of native perennial grasses; another found that grasses were up to 10 times more abundant in areas protected from burros. Scott Abella, a professor of restoration ecology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said that burros favor the food plants that desert tortoises rely on, putting pressure on this threatened species. The recent increase in droughts and concomitant loss of vegetation only exacerbate these issues, said David Lamfrom, director of NPCA’s California Desert and Wildlife programs.

The burros’ impact extends beyond the natural environment. They are occasionally involved in car crashes, damage landscaping and even interfere with military training. And some people feel threatened by them, said Alex Neibergs, a burro specialist in a BLM office near Death Valley. “When the jacks are fighting, they’re not paying attention to what’s in front of them, so they’ll run into anything,“ he said.

Pressure is mounting to deal with the larger burro issue. An advisory board to the BLM recently recommended euthanizing unadoptable burros and horses to alleviate the overcrowding problem — the agency subsequently said it wouldn’t be following that recommendation. Last year, Arizona’s Sen. John McCain wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urging her to rein in the burro population after the animals caused 24 car accidents over a two-year period in a small Arizona city near Mojave National Preserve.

Following the recommendation of a scathing 2013 report by the National Research Council on its horse- and burro-management practices, the BLM is placing renewed hope in the use of contraception to control the burro population. James Cain, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, is conducting a fertility control study at the U.S. Army’s Fort Irwin National Training Center near Death Valley.

Female burros are rounded up to receive their initial contraceptive vaccine, and researchers use dart guns to administer booster doses every year. The goal is to figure out how many females must be treated to stabilize the burro population or even lower it. One advantage of this approach is that most burro advocates are OK with it, Cain said. But it’s also expensive and requires both access to the burros and a way to identify which ones need a repeat dose, which is not easy to do in remote parts of large parks. “If you have free-ranging animals, it’s almost impossible,” said Powers, the Park Service wildlife veterinarian.

Darby, Mojave’s biologist, said he is considering trapping burros near the park’s springs but is still looking for partner organizations willing to take in the animals. He’s also been in conversation with the BLM to organize a burro roundup on the preserve’s northern edge, and he’s talked to his Death Valley and Lake Mead counterparts about pooling their resources to conduct a major burro removal operation. In short, the burro problem requires a comprehensive solution, said Death Valley’s Manning, but a broad coalition willing to tackle the issue has yet to surface. “It’s a complex situation,” she said. “There are a lot of factions with a lot of different opinions.”

Chontos falls squarely within the pro-burro faction. From daylight to 9 p.m. every day, she feeds, grooms and massages her burros, using her spare time to apply for grants or find prospective adoptive families. She never takes vacations and leaves her burros only if absolutely necessary (she asked me to buy a large bag of carrots on my way there because a grocery store run is an 80-mile round-trip ordeal). Even though she struggles with her own funding issues, she said that as soon as the Park Service resumes trapping burros, she will be there to take them in. It’s her duty to pay them back for the “5,000 years of slavery” they’ve endured, she said. To her, they’re family.

“They’re the gentlest and kindest,” she said. “I call them earth angels.”

About the author

  • Nicolas Brulliard Associate Editor

    Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as associate editor of National Parks magazine.