Wild Burros of the West
Updated: May 4
Wild mustangs aren't the only surviving living symbols of the Old West!
Just as wild horses are a romantic remnant of the Old West, wild burros too are endearing echoes of the frontier. Donkeys were first introduced to the Desert Southwest by Spaniards in the 1500s as pack animals. (The Spanish word “burro” is used interchangeably with donkey.) Later, as gold and other mineral discoveries were made in the West, the long-eared, hardy equines were used primarily as pack animals for miners and it was on their backs that so much of the West was built.
Mine deposits, especially gold, were discovered in the West as early as the 1600s by Spanish miners. But it was not until 1848 when gold was discovered in California that humanity began to flood West en masse in search of fortune. Discoveries of gold, especially in California, Nevada, Utah, the Black Hills, Colorado, Montana, Idaho, and Arizona were being made throughout the later half of the 1800s. But many deposits would be exhausted by the end of the century. When the mines played out, the donkeys were abandoned. But they survived the most unforgiving climate and brutal terrain in the American West and their numbers grew.
Donkeys came from the arid lands of Africa and in the New World were valued for their legendary hardiness. Wild burros can tolerate a water loss as much as 30% of their body weight and replenish their water reserves much more readily than humans. In fact many miners and prospectors perished of thirst on long treks across the deserts, but their donkeys survived.
Donkeys also have lower protein requirements than horses and very tough digestive systems that can break down desert vegetation and extract moisture efficiently. They eat a wider variety of plant species than wild horses, and they can go for long periods of time without drinking. These traits allow burros to thrive in harsh desert conditions where water and forage are scarce. In fact, one of the largest herds of wild donkeys live in Death Valley.
Despite their ability to live in uninhabitable scrub land, ranchers in the 1950s hunted and killed wild donkeys on public lands because they felt the donkeys were a threat to the vegetation for their livestock. Public outcry arose, in part fueled by the popularity of Marguerite Henry’s 1953 award-winning book Brighty of Grand Canyon. Then the movie came in the 1960s and a successful grassroots campaign prompted Congress to pass the 1971 Wild Horses and Burros Act. It declared wild donkeys and horses as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and protected them on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service land in ten western states.
Burrows have thrived to such an extent that their populations have exceeded the numbers recommended by BLM recommendations. Round-ups, sterilizations, and putting donkeys up for public adoption have been some of the techniques the BLM has used to control their populations. But donkey management continues to be a challenge and highly controversial, primarily because donkeys eat native vegetation that upsets the natural ecological balance of the terrain.
Several nonprofits and equine organizations provide support for the management of wild donkeys and have created programs to help adopt donkeys to the public. One such organization is Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue. The group has a five-year contract with the BLM to remove 2,500-4,000 burros from Death Valley Park, then put them up for adoption. It is one possible solution that will help maintain the legacy of wild donkeys.
Mark Meyers, the executive director of Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, puts it this way: “We used them for the Spanish Trail, we used them for Catholic mission systems, we used them for the railroad, we used them for mining. We used them for all these capacities, and then we said, ‘We don’t need them anymore.” These animals built our country, yet they’re the ones that aren’t supposed to be here.”
He adds that wild burros are a part of American history that people can experience and preserve by adopting them, something few Americans appreciate. There are many organizations Americans can contact to adopt a burro. Two of them are: www.blm.gov or www.donkeyrescue.org .
Hear strange ways donkeys "talk" in this fun video:
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"Wild Burros of the West" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on April 25, 2020
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