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Burro population management: BLM encouraging burro adoption


Elizabeth Medora

NORTH VALLEY – It’s said that burros can find their way home. But what happens when their home is getting too small for their herd? The burros of the Lake Pleasant herd are a special part of the local wildlife, and many residents enjoy seeing them.

However, the burros are facing hazards because their numbers have exponentially increased in past years, leading the burros out of their safe habitat into possible dangers, like ending up in traffic. The growing burro population also damages the habitat of native animals, causing them to be displaced from their homes. 

Arizona burro population

Arizona Game and Fish has contacted the Arizona Bureau of Land Management regarding burro overpopulation; the BLM manages some of Arizona’s wild horses and burros under the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. The BLM is considering options for managing the population of burros; relocation is one option. Burro adoption is another option – the BLM encourages residents with adequate resources to adopt burros and wild horses.

“It’s exciting to see the burros in the wild,” Dennis Godfrey, Arizona BLM spokesman, said. “I love seeing them out there. Many people do. But, you see them on the highways or automobiles hitting them – that’s a problem.”

Nathan Gonzalez, Arizona Game and Fish Department Public Information Officer, noted, “Under the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, the state should have no more than 1,316 burros within its borders. Yet surveys estimate the population at 4,411 – more than 235 percent above appropriate management levels developed and administered by the BLM as directed by Congress through the act.”

Godfrey called the overpopulation of burros a “definite situation,” but he noted that they don’t necessarily have to be removed from that area and that courts have ruled that the recommended number of burros in the Wild Horse and Burro Act is not an absolute. Godfrey added that Arizona has about 4,000 burros in-state, about half the number of wild burros in the West.

“We’re the burro state!” Godfrey said.

Arizona Game and Fish Department does not manage burro population, but they can ask the BLM to help handle overpopulation.

“For the Arizona Game and Fish Department, proper burro management reflects populations that are within established appropriate management levels that are in proper balance with surrounding wildlife and habitat,” said Gonzalez.

June Shoemaker, BLM Acting Deputy State Director – Renewable Resources, noted that population numbers are the reason that the BLM sometimes gathers herds and adopts them out.

“The goal always is to try to get it down to a management level,” Shoemaker said. While the BLM adopts out burros regularly, they don’t keep the burros in holding. Shoemaker noted that the adoption gathers are “demand driven.” The BLM will only gather as many as can be quickly adopted out.

Wild horses have been in the headlines in the past several weeks, due to the proposed removal of the Salt River horses that roam nearby the Salt River. The horses were scheduled for removal from the area due to traffic and environmental concerns, but that has been postponed indefinitely. The Tonto National Forest area where those horses reside is managed by the U.S. Forest Service; the Bureau of Land Management has no control over the Salt River horses. The BLM’s methods of herd management and relocation may differ from the Forest Service.

Amber Cargile, BLM Deputy State Director – Communications, noted that the BLM cooperates with the U.S. Forest Service on other issues but that the Salt River horses are not a BLM-managed herd.

“We don’t have any herds over in that part of the state at all,” Cargile said.

Burro overpopulation concerns

Why is burro overpopulation a problem? Gonzalez explained the concerns caused by burro overpopulation.

“While desert wildlife species typically consume only parts of plants that easily grow back, burros eat the bark and remove entire limbs from trees,” Gonzalez said. “They consume native grasses down to the roots preventing them from returning, foul waterholes used by other wildlife, and disturb sensitive nesting grounds. In some cases, habitat damage is so severe that native wildlife is displaced from their home territories. Burros negatively affect habitat relied on by bighorn sheep, mule deer, Gambel’s quail, sensitive migratory songbirds, and other wildlife species that have evolved to live in the desert.”

While burros aren’t known to directly pose danger to people or companion animals, roadway accidents are a chief concern. A burro/car collision is dangerous for the driver and will likely guarantee death for the burro.

“In May, Bullhead City Mayor Tom Brady told the Game and Fish Commission that soaring burro populations near his city have led to multiple serious vehicle collisions between the animals and motorists,” Gonzalez said. “It’s an issue that impacts motorists throughout western Arizona and one that is actively being studied.”

Cargile said that the BLM works closely with the Department of Public Safety regarding burros in high-traffic areas. She noted that the burros are often seen near the Loop 303 and have even wandered on the Ben Avery Shooting Range. If burros are close to a roadway, DPS will call the BLM to work on getting the animals moved away from the area.

“We try to be very responsive to those calls when they come in from DPS,” Cargile said.

When the burros get too comfortable near roadways and stay near busy areas, the BLM may then gather up those burros and put them in the adoption lineup.  

Shoemaker asked drivers to drive particularly carefully and at safe speeds in burro-populated areas to lessen the risk of a collision.

“The smartest thing to do is be aware, especially at night. If we get calls that they’re by or near roadways, we try to relocate them,” Shoemaker said.

As with other wildlife, Gonzalez noted that feeding burros could endanger them.

“As burros become more accustomed to humans, there will likely be an increase in the number of burro-vehicle collisions,” Gonzalez noted. “Burros will also lose their fear of people, which often results in negative burro-human interactions and while one person may like seeing burros in his/her neighborhood, the non-native species may become a nuisance for others as fruit trees or ornamental vegetation is eaten or damaged.”

Shoemaker concurred, noting that some feeding is inadvertent since burros will eat people’s lawns.

“Some people really do go out and feed them,” Shoemaker said. “That isn’t helpful. They become habituated to that.”

Burro overpopulation management

BLM spokesman Godfrey discussed what management of the burro population would look like. Burro adoption is a good option; residents can adopt a gentled burro through the BLM and help the overpopulation problem, while gaining a fascinating companion animal.

Godfrey said that the BLM recently gathered 51 burros from the Lake Pleasant area by using bait corrals with self-closing gates. These burros will now enter the adoption process. The BLM will vaccinate them, evaluate their health, and then make them available for adoption.

“They go through training and gentling, and they can be remarkably loyal and productive,” Godfrey said, noting that they make good companion animals, are well-suited to living with other animals, and are also good watch animals.

While the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971 references euthanasia as a possibility in overpopulation cases, both Godfrey and Shoemaker made it clear that the BLM is not considering this as an option whatsoever.

“Euthanasia is not a possibility or consideration,” Godfrey emphasized. He stated unequivocally that the BLM will not slaughter the burros or provide them to anyone else for slaughter. Burros and wild horses may be humanely euthanized if they are extremely ill.

“It is in the act, but just by policy, we do not,” Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker discussed another option that is currently in research. Some contraceptives have been developed for horses to help manage herd population, but, as yet, minimal contraceptive options exist for burro herds.

“So far, there really have been no immunocontraceptive trials that have been done on burros,” Shoemaker noted. The BLM is part of a study of the PZP shot for burros. This shot has been reported to show a decrease in fertility in horses after five years.

The BLM encourages wild horse and burro adoption as a win-win situation for everyone.

“The BLM is very interested in getting people to adopt burros and wild horses,” Godfrey said. Adoption prices start at $125.

“We have regular adoptions,” Godfrey said, describing the process. Each Friday, adoption events are held at the Florence prison.

“Inmates are involved in training the animals,” Godfrey noted. “The inmates are gaining confidence and gaining skill in working with animals.” Some of the wild horses trained go on to work for the border patrol.

Anyone interested in adopting a burro or wild horse can contact BLM Wild horse and burro specialist Roger Oyler at (602) 417-9421.

The burros will continue to be a part of the north valley for the foreseeable future.

“We have a herd management area at Lake Pleasant,” Godfrey said, adding that as the herd has spread throughout the north valley that the animals are considered part of that herd management area.

“There will continue to be animals in that herd management area, and we will work to maintain those herds in a healthy manner,” Godfrey said.