By Charlotte Roe and Laurie Ford
(May 15, 2023) In the Canyonlands of Utah, with luck and patience, one might spot a few wild burros browsing along the harshly beautiful plateau. For short takes they venture toward the watershed. They also dig deep for new springs which are eagerly shared by desert bighorn sheep and other wildlife. When jennets are birthing or raising foals, they keep a wary eye out for the occasional mountain lion. For hundreds of years, these wild burros and their kin in other Western lands have persevered against devilish heat, biting winds, drought and predation. Freedom to roam and bond is their birthright. Unless their story becomes known, their demise will come far too soon. The burros’ most dangerous adversaries are not four-legged predators, but those with two legs wielding spreadsheets.
Of the many species threatened by human depredation, few have been as misunderstood and dismissed as the donkey. Also known as burros on public lands in the United States and south of the border, they serve as farm workers, livestock guardians, long-distance haulers, backcountry packers, companion animals, and healers of the land. Their light footprint and capacity for giving is unsurpassed. Centuries ago, they were buried with kings. Today humans bound to special interests are hounding these gentle animals out of existence.
A Sinister Trade
Every year, upwards of 5 million donkeys are slaughtered and their hides boiled to produce Ejiao, the gel extracted from donkey hides. China’s demand for this traditional medicine and luxury beauty product created a global shortage that has increased the value for donkey traders by 2,500 percent. The donkey hides are massively exported from Africa, where more than 35 percent are stolen from rural families who are unable to replace them due to scarcity and high cost. North and South America are also key targets: the US has become the third largest exporter of donkeys for slaughter. Because the hides are valuable regardless of health, weight or hoof conditions, these animals are treated horrifically. Some are skinned alive.
The black-market trade has placed wild burros as well as domestic donkeys in peril. While many countries are taking steps to protect their donkey lifelines, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - the principal agency tasked with protecting wild burros - keeps slashing their chances for survival.
The BLM systematically destroys burro habitat and genetic health in its drive to promote commercial livestock grazing on our public lands. In 2013, when the population of wild burros in the West was 5,841, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) advised the BLM that given the small, fragmented burro population, “removing burros permanently from the range could jeopardize the genetic health of the total population.” Disregarding science, public concerns and the law, the BLM’s goal is to reduce the current total population to less than 3,000 burros on America’s public lands. At the same time, millions of privately owned livestock keep grazing the same lands unhindered.
By this point, the US will have met key criteria the IUCN set for burros to be considered an endangered species: the government will have reduced their population by more than 80 percent and left fewer than 2,500 adult males on the range.
The BLM justifies its removal campaign by claiming that herds are overpopulating and must be drastically whittled to preserve “thriving natural ecological balance.” These claims are based on misleading figures and prejudice, not evidentiary data. The Wild Horse and Burros Act, signed unanimously by Congress in 1971, defines wild burros as protected wildlife and states “they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public land.” Yet US land management agencies treat burros not as integral to the range ecology, but as trespassers and invasives.
The Numbers Racket
The BLM governs wild burro Herd Management Areas (HMA) with population targets termed Appropriate Management Levels (AML). Supposedly the number of animals the land can sustain, AMLs are in fact quotas aimed at bolstering commercial cattle and sheep stocking rates while evicting wild equines. Dr. Gus Cothran, a leading equine geneticist, maintains that a wild horse and/or burro herd of 150-200 animals is the minimum required to insure genetic viability. Currently, 7 of the 10 burro HMAs have an AML of under 50.
BLM management actions are based on wildly speculative population numbers. Its annual estimates come from aerial surveys and population modeling that, on March 1, multiply the previous year’s population by the past estimated growth rate. The BLM assumes fertility rates for burros are 20 to 25 percent, with no documented baseline. Its count includes foals yet to be born and young burros incapable of reproducing for several years.
This model was designed for horses and is based on a July-August foaling period, although the BLM acknowledges that burros have no defined foaling season. Research on the reproductive biology of Equus Asinus is limited, yet studies indicate females first foal at 5-6 years old, have longer gestation periods than horses, and may give birth every other year. Wild burro populations are incredibly fragile: 70 percent of foals do not survive. birthing and the early postnatal period makes burros especially vulnerable to predator attacks. Burro data on foal and yearling survival rates derived from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests suggest a 7 percent annual growth rate, not the rampant herd growth the BLM projects.
The spreadsheet model also discounts other growth rate factors such as age and sex distribution, age- specific reproductive and survival rates, and predation. And it omits the negative impact of increasing multiple use of resources within the HMA. An example is rapidly rising recreation, such as off-road ATV riding, that stresses wild burros, driving them further away from resources they need to stay healthy and forcing them into less desirable areas. Aerial surveys make it harder to observe burros due to their similarities in appearance and habits of traveling in small groups that easily scatter. To compensate, the BLM now adjusts its final count by 25 percent to account for those “present but not seen,” while in the past it only added an average of 5 percent.
The BLM performs a slippery jiu jitsu to keep its flawed 10-year management plan alive and fully
funded. The annual herd numbers must be high enough to support the concept of overpopulation, but must also indicate progress toward reaching AML. This requires a bit of tweaking now and then, for example, inserting undefined parameter values in the population growth model and modifications in aerial survey analysis.
Taking Down the Black Mountain Burros
The 2022 assault on the 1.1-million-acre Black Mountain HMA, the largest, most genetically robust burro population, illustrates the BLM’s cavalier use of numbers. In 2021, with an estimated population of 2012, the BLM removed 500. Following an aerial survey in November, the BLM inflated the population to 2976, of which it has already removed 1800. These evictions represent over 10 percent of the total US wild burro population. With plans to remove even more, the BLM will leave nothing but a fragmented herd, now a shadow of its original size. Those removed were fit and healthy, despite the claim that they need to be captured for their own good.
Meanwhile, the privately owned cattle still graze, consuming 72 percent of the forage and running down the fragile desert land. In less than one year, thousands of free-roaming burros have been removed from their homeland and sent to grim holding facilities. If adopted, many will go to people ill-prepared to care for them or intending to send them down the slaughter pipeline.
Targeting the Canyonlands Burros
Left alone in their remote desert landscape, the Canyonlands wild burros have maintained a stable population for many years. Many factors play into this natural balance, including scarce water resources, harsh terrain, and the presence of predators. Yet the BLM aims to drive out the long-eared ungulates.
The BLM’s environmental assessment (EA) justification is full of holes. Based on a 2002 aerial survey and an outdated management plan, it estimates there are 151 wild burros in the 77,311-acre Canyonlands HMA. Thirty-nine percent of those burros are actually located outside the HMA, indicating that the herd already meets the skinny AML target. The EA proposes to reduce the population by half, although doing so will create a genetic crisis that Dr. Cothran has termed “severe population contraction.” On pages 17- 18 of the EA, the BLM acknowledges that its underlying aim of slashing wild burro populations is to maintain the “preferential level of livestock grazing.”
The BLM knowingly flouts science and the law by prioritizing the interests of cattle ranchers. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act couldn’t be clearer. It stipulates that wild horses and burros are the “principal users of public lands,” to be protected “where they are presently found.”
The NAS’s 2013 report found a substantial proportion of HMA estimates and adoptions published by BLM’s national office did not fit those received from field offices. The NAS also reported that links between the national statistics and actual population-size surveys, the foundational data of all estimates, are obscure.
Such profound errors undergird the BLM’s plans to decimate the Marietta Wild Burro Range, the only HMA dedicated exclusively to wild burros in the US. Based on a March 2020 inventory, the BLM
estimated the 2022 burro population as 688 on its national data website - an inconceivable 256.5 percent increase from the 2018 population of 193. The Nevada field office data differs radically: its 2022 aerial survey documented only 421 burros, with 232 outside the HMA. BLM plans to remove 479 burros from the 64,466-acre range and surrounding areas, potentially leaving this unique Wild Burro Range void of any of the long-eared animals it was created to protect.
A big twist in the numbers game comes from “nuisance gathers,” the BLM’s term for rounding up and removing wild burros that wander outside HMAs but are included in the herd count. Because the BLM typically does not subtract those removed from the annual HMA population estimates, they are double-counted. For example, the 2020 estimate of the Cibolo-Triago HMA in Arizona was 616. Despite 570 “nuisance” burros being removed, the BLM lists the 2022 population as 378, and has removed an additional 189 burros that wandered off the HMA.
These factual errors and deceptive numbers are carried over year after year and have inflated population estimates to the point where no one knows how many burros still exist on our public lands. The BLM’s total wild burro population estimate of 17,780 is simply a shot in the dark derived from sham methodology.
The Roundup Toll
The BLM’s accelerated removals increase the casualties. In 2021, the BLM removed 1918 wild burros from their designated habitats on public lands; in 2022 it removed more than 3,000 from 5 HMAs. Using helicopters, contractors frighten and stampede the animals into traps, creating havoc and great harm to these gentle equines. Unlike horses, when faced with unknown danger, donkeys often stand in place to take stock or scatter to try and evade their persecutors. In response, wranglers aggressively chase and rope the burros and resort to electric prods. The BLM’s own animal welfare assessment chronicled an example of one contractor hitting, kicking and beating a captured burro during a 2022 roundup. Because observers are increasingly banned, the extent of this abusive treatment is unknown.
The trauma induced by roundups and captivity triggers dormant infections, respiratory disease and immune system failure. The 2016 Sinbad roundup left 31 burros dead from a herpes virus. Shortly after the 2022 Blue Wing roundup in Nevada, 45 burros died - the majority from hyperlipaemia, a blood disease triggered by stress and dietary disorder. Contractors had transported the captives from Sinbad and Blue Wing to the notorious Axtell corrals in Utah, where the BLM’s own assessments have documented multiple violations of animal welfare rules - and where no independent observers were allowed. Of 219 “nuisance” burros removed in Nevada, 25 percent are now dead. One-half perished within the first few months of captivity.
BLM holding pens are overcrowded, filthy, and typically way stations for the road to slaughter. As of February 2023, the BLM was warehousing over 2,638 burros in off-range pens at a cost to taxpayers of more than $1,825 per animal each year. It adopts out younger burros for a fee of $125 without serious vetting or follow-up monitoring. The majority of those offered for adoption are untrained. Burros over 10 years of age, or those passed up for adoption three times, are sold for $25 or less under “sale authority,” based on a nebulous amendment to the 1971 Act. In 2019 the BLM initiated an Adoption Incentive Program (AIP) which pays $1,000 to “qualified adopters” to title a captured burro, with no follow-up monitoring. Advocates have discovered that many AIP burros, already marked as excess baggage, enter the slaughter pipeline.
Charlotte Roe is a retired foreign service officer and science advisor to The Cloud Foundation, and Laurie Ford is a wildlife photographer and burro expert for several non-profit organizations. Both are longtime wild equid guardians who advocate for their well-being and preservation on our public lands