The Sinbad Wild Burro Roundup – A Look Back

By Mary Koncel

(May 31, 2022) Early in May, I observed the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) roundup and removal of wild burros from the Sinbad Herd Management Area (HMA) in central Utah.  I hope it’s my last.

I’ve been on-site at several wild horse roundups for AWHC.  Watching these iconic animals being chased by helicopters, driven into trap pens, separated from their family members, then trailered off to holding pens is nothing short of senseless, inhumane, and heartbreaking.  But the first word that comes to mind when I think about the roundup of the 153 Sinbad wild burros – including one death – is brutal. 



Located 30 miles west of Green River, Utah, the Sinbad HMA is comprised of almost 100,000 acres of BLM and state land that extends 18 miles on both sides of I-70 in the San Rafael Reef.  Its landscape is vast and dramatic – a mix of flat desert and gorges, buttes, mesas, and badlands shaped by centuries of water and wind. Vegetation is largely pinion and juniper woodlands and various forage grasses.  Water is available from springs and reservoirs as well as the San Rafael River.

According to the BLM,  the Sinbad burro population is 328 burros as of the beginning of this year. Because the Appropriate Management Level (AML) is between 50 and 70 animals, the agency targeted about 300 burros for removal with 20 jennies possibly being returned after being treated with GonaCon, an untested fertility control vaccination for wild burros.

Doing some quick math, that means there are about 305 acres for each burro!

The reason for this mass removal – is to prevent undue or unnecessary degradation of the public lands. Never mind that ongoing research showing that wild burros dig wells in desert environments across the West or that hundreds and hundreds of privately-owned cow/calf pairs who weigh two to three times more than burros graze inside and outside the HMA at various times of the year.

Not unexpectedly, Cattoor Livestock, Inc – the BLM’s “golden boys” – was the contractor that was awarded a $139,980 contract to supply two helicopters on the first two days of the Sinbad operation and one for the remaining days as well as five to six wranglers on horseback each day.  

The Roundup

There are a few things to know about the Sinbad burros and wild burros in general that made this roundup particularly tough.

First, the Sinbad burros are habituated to people because so many camp and “recreate” on the HMA – meaning tearing around on its dirt roads with their jeeps and ATVs. So, when Cattoor brought in its trucks and trailers, the burros remained unfazed – and so vulnerable.  Not surprisingly, then, a family of three jennies and their foals grazing near the trap site whom AWHC photographer Laurie and I spent some time watching one morning were the first to be rounded up just hours later.

Second, given that the BLM targeted 300 burros for removals and struggled to capture the 153 burros it did, the population of 328 burros may be an overestimation.

Third, the Sinbad burros, whose dominant colors are black and grey, are important from a genetic perspective – especially because they’re only one of two herds in the entire state of Utah.

Fourth, wild burros don’t respond to being chased by helicopters in the same way that wild horses do.  For the most part, the former freeze or scatter while the latter tend to stay in their bands while being driven into the trap. That’s pretty much what  happened at Sinbad which resulted in about 40 burros who dared to challenge the helicopter and ended up being roped by the wranglers with some horrendous consequences.

Although the BLM Price Office provided Laurie and I with good observation spots during the operation, the helicopter/s or the wranglers were not always visible because they were either too far away or trees and mesa blocked our view.

That said, we were frequently able to see the helicopter/s driving the burros into the trap pen. During the first three days, the helicopters were able to find and capture large numbers of burros – 123 to be exact, including young foals and heavily pregnant jennies.  And, because burros are burros, many split and ran off in different directions.  Others just stood, refusing to move. Sometimes the helicopter went after them, flying or hovering close to push them along. Sometimes the wranglers were sent after them, and sometimes a trailer had to be moved to them to load them in the field.  A few lucky ones escaped into the trees.

At wild horse roundups, I’ve never seen horses being roped by the wranglers. At Sinbad, it became common. Initially, the wranglers seemed to be to using a “gentler” approach.  At some point, though – maybe because fewer and fewer burros were being captured – they went rogue, with two or three running after a single burro, roping him, often jerking him to a stop, and then bringing him into the trap pen.

At least two burros went down after being roped. One day, for example, we saw a wrangler pursuing and roping a burro, who had evaded the helicopter, at a full gallop. When the wrangler veered one way, the burro went the other; the burro was flipped onto his side, and the wrangler was pulled off his horse from the force.

Even more tragic was the death of a young jack on the second to last day of the operation.  The official explanation from the BLM Gather Report was that the “7 year-old male sustained a spinal cord injury after falling into a 5-foot drainage ditch he was trying to jump during gather operations.”  A BLM official arrived and shot him about 30 minutes later. 

On the next day, Laurie found the dead burro and the place where he died. Based on her observations and photos, she believes the death could attributed to an aggressive chase by a wrangler toward the wire fence bordering I-70 that was about 20 feet from the ditch and well in sight. If the wrangler had backed off before almost reaching that fence, Laurie speculates, the burro could have slowed down and made a turn away from the fencing.

The Aftermath

Because Cattoor did not capture the 300 or so burros targeted for removal, bait or water trapping will begin on the Sinbad HMA sometime in late summer or fall.  While taking any of these burros from their federally designated habitat is cruel, unnecessary, and expensive for taxpayers, at least this method is more humane than being chased by helicopters and run down by wranglers.

In the past, the BLM chose trapping over helicopters to remove burros. However, in its efforts to round up over 3,000 burros this year alone, the agency is relying primarily on helicopters – and the accompanying roping – in seven out of eight operations in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and California.

Short-term, these roundups translate into continued abuse of burros at the hands of the BLM and its contractors.  At Sinbad, for example, the excessive and reckless roping as well as reportedly leaving captured burros on trailers for hours with no water resulted in multiple violations of the agency’s own Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program (CAWP),

At the recently completed Black Mountain helicopter roundup in Arizona where 1,109 burros lost their freedom, the BLM’s CAWP assessment found that a crew member – once again Cattoor was the contractor – “used a shaker paddle in an abusive manner, including aggressively hitting and jabbing the paddle into the sides and sensitive areas of burros, and eventually using the handle end to aggressively poke and prod the burros.”

That’s bad enough, but the BLM’s massive roundups also threaten the long-term survival of wild burros across the West.  Claiming some 17,000 wild burros remain on public land, the agency aims to reduce the population to just a national AML of just 2,700 over the next few years – even though, in 2013, the National Academy of Sciences’ report on the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program warned that wild burro populations were already small and fragmented. It recommended no removals in order to prevent inbreeding and maintain genetic viability.

So much for science.

While much focus is rightfully placed on protecting wild horses, remember that wild burros also represent the “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit” of our western heritage so eloquently described in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.

Please take action and help stop the roundups and removals of America’s wild burros. Our government’s management policies should not include brutalizing these stoic and gentle long-eared wonders.