By CHARLOTTE ROE
To The Desert Independent
June 1, 2017
Perhaps no animal has given so much to humankind as the gentle donkey. As farm workers, guardians, backcountry packers, therapeutic healers and all-around great companion animals, their light footprint and capacity for giving is unsurpassed.
Today, burros in the wild along with their domestic cousins face a mounting worldwide threat from the international trade in donkey skins. Donkey-hide gel, called ejiao in Chinese, is one of three elements of Chinese traditional medicine. China slaughters millions of its donkeys annually for their skins, creating a shortage that has driven the price up fourfold. Traders are exporting donkey hides from Africa, depriving many rural families of the domestic animals upon which they depend. The African Wild Ass (Equus Africanus) is critically endangered, and may be driven to extinction through the legal and black market trade in ejiao.
Burros of Arizona by Ginger Kathrens
Now donkey hide merchants are looking beyond Africa. Because of donkeys’ small size, they have not been as sought after as horses by “kill buyers.” With the ejiao trade, processing and shipping costs are minimal, and the hides are valuable regardless of donkey health, weight or hoof conditions. Donkeys from the United States and South America may become more valuable dead than alive.
The budget presented to Congress by President Trump proposes lifting any restrictions on sales of wild equines. This will allow slaughter of any wild horses or burros it deems to be in “excess” on the range. The horses will be able to be transferred, without limitation, to private owners and/or other public entities.
These public agencies include state bodies like the Arizona Fish and Game Department, which label the burros “feral invasives” and want to get rid of them.
The language would set wild equine conservation back to the days when Wild Horse Annie campaigned to stop the wholesale shooting of mustangs and burros and their sale for pet food. Her fight led to the unanimous passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which defined wild horses and burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West…” that “contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.”
The 1971 Act charged the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Forest Service with protecting wild free-roaming horses and burros on a priority basis “in the area where presently found as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” Despite clear Congressional intent, powerful interests – livestock industry leaders, oil and mining companies and land developers – have subverted the law, amending it to suit those who exploit public lands for their private benefit. Since 1971, the BLM reduced designated wild horse and burro habitat by 41 percent, cutting over 22 million acres from the rangelands they had roamed.
The BLM’s relentless policy of wild equine roundup and removal created a dysfunctional system that wastes taxpayer dollars and causes undue suffering for these stoical animals. Today, the BLM is reportedly warehousing 1,063 burros in off-range pens. When the BLM conducted its first wild horse and burro census in 1974, around 15,000 wild burros roamed the West. Today, the official count is 13,191 burros on the range, yet the Agency says it is obliged to keep rounding them up. It costs practically nothing to keep a burro in the wild. To house the burros in holding corals costs taxpayers approximately $1,825 per animal each year.
BLM adopts out younger burros for a fee of $125 without serious vetting or follow-on monitoring. The majority of those offered for adoption are untrained. (A Trainer Incentive Program that paid volunteers to train burros and offer them for adoption has now run out of funding.) Burros over 10 years of age, or that have been passed up for adoption three times, are sold for $25 or less under “sale authority,” based on a nebulous amendment to the 1971 Act. Given their cheap price and status as excess baggage, burros’ new owners have no financial incentive to care for them. Many live miserable lives, are passed off to shelters, or enter the kill pen pipeline.
Helicopter roundups are devastating for the burros. By nature, they don’t run in groups when faced with a threat, but freeze in place to study the situation or scatter when clearly faced with an unbeatable force. Many die or suffer long-term physical and behavioral consequences from the trauma of being hunted down one by one. The aftermath of rounding up 225 burros from the Sinbad herd in Utah in the spring of 2016 left 37 dead. Those captured, if they survive, lose their freedom, their close-knit family bonds and their purpose in life. The helicopter removals make no fiscal or ecological sense. Post-roundup, burro herds left in the wild initially produce more offspring than normal as a biological response to the existential threat to herd survival.
The BLM justifies removing burros from their home by stating the herds are overpopulating and that they damage habitat. These claims are based on prejudice and political pressure, not evidence. Burros in the wild are part of a chain of interactions that benefit the ecology. They move constantly, browsing on coarser vegetation. They do not compete with livestock or wildlife for forage; in fact, cattle that graze in areas with wild donkeys have been observed to gain weight, since the latter do not fully digest seeds, but spread them, and have what researcher Dan Rubenstein calls a “facilitative relationship” with the ungulates. In the Mohave Desert, burros have been observed digging water holes over a meter deep that are used by other wildlife including bighorn sheep, deer, and coyotes:
https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-unseen-ecology-of-the-wild-burro#/ Arizona researcher Erick Lundgren notes that burro water engineering produces “vegetation nurseries” in the driest of land.
The BLM sets arbitrary population targets called AML’s (Appropriate Management Levels) to slash burro herds. In its 2013 analysis of the federal Wild Horse and Burro Program, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said the AMLs were not supported by scientific evidence. The Academy warned that given the small, fragmented burro population in the West, “removing burros permanently from the range could jeopardize the genetic health of the total population.” The BLM chose to ignore that warning, and instead, forge ahead with its deadly, wasteful roundup and removal program.
The Cloud Foundation and the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign call for establishing a wild burro range in Arizona’s Black Mountain region, the herd area with the largest and most genetically robust burro population. The BLM’s current goal is to remove three-quarters of this herd, which it claims currently numbers over 1500 animals. Creating a reserve like the Pryor Mountain Range and allowing the return of predators would be a key step to preserve this unique herd.
Change will only happen when taxpayers speak up to insist that the BLM cease its war on burros. That means telling lawmakers any budget language allowing wild equine slaughter or transfer without full legal protections is unacceptable, unworkable and inhumane. The BLM must revise its absurdly low population targets and start protecting, rather than vilifying, this valuable ecological and historical resource. Burros contributed their blood and muscle to the opening of the West. They nurture wild places. They deserve our respect and understanding. They deserve to stay home on the range.