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Arizona has a wild burro problem

Two burros wait in their viewing pen before the bidding starts at an adoption event in Lorton, Va.. (Rich Lipski/The Washington Post)
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In 1971, Congress declared wild burros “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” It lamented that the ambling pack animals were “fast disappearing from the scene.”

What a difference 45 years makes.

Today, some people in Arizona are describing burros using language typically reserved for invasive species or criminals. They are now “non-native” and “feral.” They are causing many “burro-vehicle collisons” on highways. To the horror of equine rights groups, one local official even proposed hunting them.

“Many states have a wild horse problem,” Steve Moss, the Mohave County supervisor who suggested hunting – not seriously, he says – said in an interview. “Arizona has a wild burro problem.”

That problem – a booming population of federally-protected burros in northwestern Arizona – has now reached Capitol Hill. Last month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met in Washington with Moss and other Arizona officials about the burro business, and he demanded action.

“It’s time that Congress held a hearing to examine the rapid growth of burro populations in Arizona,” McCain said in a statement.

The problem, to those who think it is one, is rooted in the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. Congress passed it after the slaughter of wild equines had led to a population decline, and it put their protection and control in the hands of the federal Bureau of Land Management.

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Since then, horses in the West have gotten most of the press. Their numbers rebounded to the point that the bureau for decades has used helicopters to round up excess horses. It adopts out or sells some and lodges thousands of others in private ranches – a practice that costs $50,000 per animal and accounts for 65 percent of the bureau’s Wild Horse and Burro Program budget, according to agency figures. But there are still far more wild horses than the government says the land can support. States and ranchers accuse the agency of doing a poor job of equine management and leaving locals to deal with the consequences.

The Arizona burro problem is a microcosm of that local-federal land management battle, only with animal protagonists that are more moseying than majestic, that hang out under store awnings and that are fairly easily rounded up with offers of snacks.

About 10,800 wild burros, whose ancestors were introduced to North America by Spanish colonists, now roam around bureau-supervised “herd management areas;” another 1,180 or so live in government-sponsored corrals.

Prospectors imported burros to Arizona in the 1860s, then abandoned them after a mining bust. Having evolved in the deserts of North Africa, the burros did just fine in the arid Southwest, and their population in Arizona is now about 4,800.

That number is at the heart of the hubbub in Arizona, because it’s about three times higher than the 1,676 the bureau considers “appropriate” for the land and the animals themselves. The big problem is in the Black Mountain Herd Management Area, in Mohave County. The government says the appropriate number for that area is 478 burros, and now there are about 1,700.

Some wander around the tourist town of Oatman, where visitors delight in offering carrots and watching them snooze in the sun.

But the burros have a darker side, Moss said. For one, they also saunter across highways, and they’ve caused 36 collisions in the past three years, he said (all of which, so far, have been fatal only to burros, not humans). The animals also mow down the landscape, damaging the habitat and “out-competing” the native bighorn sheep in the area, Moss said. And with no real predators, the burro population doubles in size every four years.

Ire has been rising among local and state officials, particularly those in the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which is in charge of managing wildlife in the state – but not the burros, because of that 1971 congressional act. Its commissioner has accused the bureau of shirking its duties and has threatened legal action. But as a first step, it has proposed providing expertise and logistical support to the feds in the hope of expanding burro adoptions in Arizona.

The bureau’s director, Neil Kornze, told the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday that the program is one of the bureau’s “most challenging responsibilities” and has “substantial and unsustainable” costs.

The West is on the brink of a wild horse apocalypse. (No, really.)

Amber Cargile, a spokeswoman for the bureau’s Arizona office, said the agency is trying new approaches to burro adoptions, including billboards and “increasing social media profiles” of the burros looking for their forever homes. In the past year, she said, 300 burros in the state have entered “the adoption pipeline.”

The bureau is also working with the Humane Society of the United States to prepare for a field study on using the contraceptive PZP to control the burro population, focusing on the Black Mountain burros, she said.

“The BLM recognizes the need for innovative solutions to put the management of wild burros on a sustainable path for the benefit of the animals, the land and the U.S. taxpayers,” Cargile said.

Moss said he and other officials think contraceptives would be too expensive. Holly Hazard, a senior vice president at the Humane Society and the group’s resident burro expert, said they would cost less than a large-scale adoption program, and she also urged Mohave County to stop letting tourists feed the burros.

“Contraception would be a perfect antidote,” Hazard said. But “they also have to train these burros not to come to the smorgasbord that they have in the center of Oatman.”

Plenty of YouTube videos star the burros of Oatman. Some feature burro fights, which Moss said is also a sign of the population problem: Males now spar over females in plain view of visitors.

“And when burros fight, it’s not a gentle thing,” he said.

Moss said he suggested hunting the animals, which he referred to as “man’s second-best friend,” purely because he knew it would draw attention to the matter. He is not a hunter, and if he were, burros would not be his game of choice, he said.

“If I want to shoot a burro, I can put a carrot on the ground. It’ll eventually wander up to me,” Moss said. “That’s not very challenging.”

Moss said he hopes the game and fish department’s adoption plan – one McCain expressed support for, he said – will work.

In case you’re interested: Adopting a burro through the current federal program costs at least $125; a burro trained by a prison inmate goes for $200, and the government application requires you to draw the corral where you will house your burro. The bureau notes that the animals prefer to wallow in dust than be bathed, and that their reputation for stubbornness comes from a sense of caution that causes a burro in an unfamiliar environment to “ponder its predicament.”

If not cared for properly, the bureau warns, burros can also get obese.

“They eat a lot more than a dog or cat,” Moss said. “A suburban homeowner can’t really adopt a burro.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the Arizona Game and Fish Department has proposed taking over the burro adoption program from the federal government. The post has been updated to clarify that the department’s proposal offers expertise and logistical support to the adoption program, which would remain in the control of the Bureau of Land Management. 

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