First burro plan took years to complete

Last week I wrote about the history of burro management in the Black Mountains and how, after a shooting of 52 feral burros at Cool Springs in Unit 15D, the Bureau of Land Management reached out to a number of agencies and groups to solve the burro, desert bighorn sheep and cattle management issues.

In this week's opinion piece, I will explain who was involved in formulating a plan that took three years to produce and resulted in the Black Mountain Ecosystem Management Plan. It's a plan that was signed by many different groups and was good then, as it should be today.

I will be quoting from the plan to explain how it all came together.

From the plan: "Ecosystem management is, of course, easier to define then to achieve. The Ecosystem Management Team came together as an unlikely and heterogeneous assembly of determined individuals, each with his or her own agenda and axe to grind. Present at the lengthy meetings was individuals representing wilderness, wildlife, sportsmen, livestock, burros, bighorn sheep, and several government agencies."

Individuals who were part of the plan from the BLM were Ken Drew, Kingman Resource Area manager; Mike Stamm, KRA wild horse and burro specialist; Scott Elefritz, KRA range conservationist; Rebecca Peck, KRA wildlife biologist; Bill O'Sullivan, KRA wilderness specialist; Don McClure, KRA planning and environmental specialist; and Ron Hooper, Arizona State Office riparian coordinator.

Contributors, as we were called in the plan, included George Welsh, Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society; Nancy Hendricks, National Park Service; Ken McReynolds Mohave County Livestock Association; and Ross Haley, National Park Service.

Others included Karen Sussman, president of the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros; Jim Witham, Arizona Game & Fish Department; Richard Leibold, Sierra Club; Ray Lee, AZGFD; and me, representing the Mohave Sportsman Club.

In the first months and maybe even a year or two into the process, very little got accomplished. It wasn't until all of the members of the team finally started to listen and trust each other that a break-through occurred.

Apparently, team members had come to realize that the only hope of avoiding total failure was compromise.

The team developed a vision statement that read, "Manage the Black Mountain ecosystem in a cooperative manner which, over the long term, will result in the enhancement of the area's resource values."

And so it began.

After buying into the ecosystem management planning process, the team worked together in a collaborative manner to accomplish the goal of managing the Black Mountains not for just one species, but for ALL species that lived there.

The team's first appreciation of the values of ecosystem approach occurred when the team realized that a great many management problems could be solved by ensuring a healthy and diverse plant community. That was something that all members could support, and it was an important piece of common ground.

Goals, objectives and management actions were developed for the maintenance of the Black Mountain plant communities. This leap forward, a progressive departure from the narrow-minded, single-species approaches to natural resource management of the past, set the stage for other common goals, objectives and actions designed to address remaining Black Mountain Management issues.

In the end, those actions included the setting of population levels of animals; both native and feral.

The large ungulates that were identified as living there included desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, burros, mule deer and cattle. But as I was to learn from my friend Richard Leibold during the process, we also needed "to look out for the little guys." That meant animals such as Gambel quails, Merriam's kangaroo rats, white-throated woodrats, gray foxes, ringtail cats, desert tortoises, cactus wrens, golden eagles, and prairie falcons, just to name a few.

And while there were allowances for these small animals in the final plan, it was the determination of the appropriate management level of the large mammals that would be agreed upon by all parties that turned out to be toughest to resolve.

After three years of work, and with the support of the BLM on the state and federal level, including the then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, an agreement was signed.

It was agreed that 50 percent of the annually produced forage in the Black Mountains would be distributed as follows to the large ungulates:

• 30 percent (of the 50 percent) of public land forage would be allocated to livestock;

• 30 percent (of the 50 percent) would be available for burros;

• 40 percent (of the 50 percent) would be available for desert bighorn sheep.

The remaining 50 percent was reserved for soil and watershed enhancement, physiological needs of plants and non-ungulate species, and as Leibold proclaimed, "The little guys."

The appropriate management level of burros would be set at 478 animals allowed in the Black Mountains. Bighorn sheep would number 1,196, while cattle numbers would be set at 235. Other wildlife, such as deer, would have a population limit set at 300 animals

It was noted at the time that sheep had been captured in the Black Mountains every year since 1979 to 1995 (except 1992), and that a total of 502 bighorns had been removed from the area.

In 1994, it was estimated that there were 1,778 sheep in the Black Mountains. That number included 504 animals in Unit 15B West, 480 sheep in Unit 15C North, 307 sheep in Unit 15C South and 487 sheep in Unit 15D.

Current population estimates after the 2013-2014 surveys are as follows: 203 sheep in Unit 15B West, 195 sheep in Unit 15C North, 69 sheep in 15C South, and 460 animals in Unit 15D.

The total estimated population is believed to be at 927, which is significantly below the authorized management level of 1,196 that were authorized by the plan in 1996.

Sheep captures and transplants by the Arizona Game & Fish Department have occurred since 2012, despite being under the authorized management levels.

There was a capture in 2012, where 40 sheep were taken from Unit 15D and transplanted to Unit 15B West.

In 2013, the department captured 40 sheep in Unit 15D and moved them to Unit 16A South.

In 2014, the department once again captured 40 sheep and they were transplanted again to Unit 16A South.

Obviously desert bighorn sheep numbers are well within authorized levels in the Black Mountains. The same can't be said for burro numbers however.

According to Chad Benson, the Kingman Resource Area's wild horse and burro specialist, it is estimated that there are currently from 1,507 to 1,807 burros in the Black Mountains.

No captures of burros, other than nuisance animals, have been made in the Black Mountains by the BLM since 2010, according to Benson.

If you would like to comment on what you think the BLM needs to do about the over-population of burros, you can send comments to:

Bureau of Land Management, Kingman Field Office, 2755 Mission Blvd, Kingman AZ 86401, ATTN: Chad Benson.

I think you'll be surprised in hearing why burros aren't being captured. I'll tell you the answer to that question next week in the third part of this series on burros in the Black Mountains.