What should be done to curb the burros' numbers?

BLM working on sterilization, contraception

A burro chows down on what would’ve been an Oatman tourist’s lunch. The burros living in the wild are also thought to be helping themselves at the expense of others. (ALAN CHOATE/Miner)

A burro chows down on what would’ve been an Oatman tourist’s lunch. The burros living in the wild are also thought to be helping themselves at the expense of others. (ALAN CHOATE/Miner)

KINGMAN - Of all the possible solutions to controlling the wild burro population in Mohave County, euthanization is understandably the least palatable for the public, but it could be a last resort, County Supervisor Steve Moss said Monday at a public workshop.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has been unable to maintain the burro population in accordance with the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, and it's creating a problem with public safety and desert wildlife habitat, Moss said.

The burro population in the Black Mountain herd management area along the Colorado River has exploded to more than 1,700, which is more than three times the recommended 478 in the law.

Burros are causing traffic accidents by wandering onto state and county highways, and they're depriving indigenous wildlife such as the bighorn sheep and mule deer of precious vegetation and water sources.

Bullhead City Mayor Tom Brady said there have been 36 accidents involving burros in the city limits since December 2012, including four since Christmas, and that doesn't count accidents outside the city limits.

"Thank God the speed limit is 50 mph, not 60 or 70," he said. "If you hit a full-size burro at high speed, you know what the results can be."

"Statistically, it's only a matter of time until someone is going to be killed," Moss added. "That is the task Mohave County and Bullhead City and Yuma and other officials are concerned with."

Moss drew widespread criticism when he proposed that the Legislature give authority to the Arizona Game and Fish Department to start issuing hunting licenses for the burros, a hardball tactic that he says was intended to force the BLM into some kind of action. He never truly intended for the burros to be killed, he said.

Moss received more than 350 emails about the item he placed on the Board of Supervisors' Jan. 19 agenda, but only two were from residents of Mohave County. About 20 to 30 were from people in the Phoenix area, and the rest were from people the East who have no clue about the problems created by wild burros, he said.

"I had comments that I'm a hunter, that I'm a cattleman. I am not a hunter. I am a suburban Mohave County supervisor who sees a risk and threat to public safety because something is not being done about a feral animal that's getting into our roadways."

Pat Barber, regional supervisor for Arizona Game and Fish Department, said appropriate management levels of the burro population aren't the only consideration for the BLM, but they shouldn't be ignored either because they're based on scientific data.

The state's burro population is estimated at about 4,400, or three times the recommended level.

"We find these animals have a significant negative impact on wildlife," Barber said during his slide presentation at the workshop. "The BLM has become paralyzed. They're not able to do a whole lot to manage the population and there's no indication of a light at the end of the tunnel."

Barber identified about half a dozen strategies by Fish and Game to control the population, starting with collecting and analyzing data on the burros' damage to wildlife habitat. They have a different skull structure than sheep and deer, so they're able to use upper and lower insider teeth to tear bark off trees, he said.

They also consume more vegetation and digest it faster, and it's pretty rare for them to be taken down by predators, Barber added.

Additional strategies include raising the public's awareness of the problem, seeking out partnerships with government and nongovernment organizations to remove the burros, and seeing congressional support to require the U.S. Department of Interior to comply with provisions of the Wild Horses and Burros Act.

The state must also maintain standing in any litigation or BLM action.

"There are ways to litigate with the BLM and potentially win, but the outcome is likely to be an injunction until the BLM changes its plan, and that's not going to get burros off our landscape," Barber said.

The BLM's goal is clearly to maintain a balance on wildlife, and that's going to require "innovative solutions and creative decisions," said Roxie Trost, Colorado River District Manager for the BLM.

One of the long-term solutions would be contraception and sterilization, and the BLM is working on the details of that program, she said.

"We're looking forward to hearing other solutions and partnering with communities," Trost told the Board of Supervisors. "Nothing is off the table. Everything will be weighed."

The BLM has initiated an environmental assessment of the burro situation, and Trost said she hopes to have something prepared by the end of September.

"Our teams are just beginning to come up with some ideas," she said.