Burros: Beloved beasts or bothersome burden?

Curious burros warily check out the photographer. The animals may not be indigenous to Mohave County, but they are here nonetheless. The question that must be answered is how to manage herd size in order to protect the fragile Mojave Desert ecosystems that support countless other species. Below, one of about a dozen burros that call Oatman home - something the town depends on for tourist dollars.

Photo by JC Amberlyn.

Curious burros warily check out the photographer. The animals may not be indigenous to Mohave County, but they are here nonetheless. The question that must be answered is how to manage herd size in order to protect the fragile Mojave Desert ecosystems that support countless other species. Below, one of about a dozen burros that call Oatman home - something the town depends on for tourist dollars.

KINGMAN – Burros were brought to Arizona as beasts of burden for mining prospectors seeking their fortune, and their wild descendants are stubborn as a mule about leaving.

They were turned loose and left to fend for themselves when the miners went bust.

Despite not being indigenous to the desert, the burros have thrived here, growing their population to more than 1,800 in the Black Mountains and along the Colorado River basin.

They’re doing just fine, thank you.

Burros are a big attraction in Oatman, wandering the streets of the historic mining town, taking food handouts from tourists and posing for pictures. They’re often spotted along Route 66 and in wildlife areas.

About a dozen of them come into Oatman regularly, said Rich Foskett from the Oatman Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s their town, not ours,” he said. “They were here long before us, since the early mining days. When they stopped mining, they left them here and they’ve been here ever since.”

Not everyone welcomes their existence.

Hunters and ranchers claim the burros are damaging the desert’s delicate ecosystem, robbing resources from other wildlife such as bighorn sheep, mule deer and elk.

The Bureau of Land Management protects and controls wild horse and burro populations under the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The goal is to keep the herds healthy and grazing on rangelands.

BLM manages about 5,300 head of wild burros roaming public lands in seven herd management areas, along with 300 head of wild horses in the Cerbat Mountains, northwest of Kingman.

One of the BLM’s major responsibilities is to determine the “appropriate management level” for wild horses and burros on public lands. Because these animals have virtually no natural predators, their herd sizes can double nearly every four years.

It is the BLM’s role to make certain the number of wild horses and burros exists in a balance with other public land resources and uses in order to promote healthy conditions on the range.

At its Jan. 17 meeting, Mohave County Board of Supervisors nominated Don Martin, owner of Arizona Wildlife Outfitters and Striper Hunters, to the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.

An experienced hunter and outdoors columnist for the Daily Miner, Martin has witnessed and documented destruction of native plants and other issues dealing with burros. He’s worked with county, state and federal officials.

“I fully understand that there is a segment of the American population who are fascinated and enamored by burros,” Martin said. “No denying that especially when they’re young, they are fuzzy, cute little critters.

“But they are a feral, non-native major ungulate that must be managed just as wildlife and cattle are when occupying federal lands.”

Besides damaging native plants, burros have grown in numbers so much that they are currently a public safety issue in Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City, where they’ve been struck on the roadways.

Another area where the burro population exploded is around Wikieup, where expanding herds are causing damage to the Burro Creek riparian area, Martin noted. Ocotillo cactus and native willows are being destroyed.

Mohave County Supervisor Steve Moss caused a stir last year when he proposed to reduce the burro population by seeking legislation to issue hunting permits for them. Animal activists came from Phoenix and Tempe to protest the idea.

Moss said it was never really his intention to kill the lovable creatures. He simply wanted to light a fire under the BLM and prompt the federal agency to comply with its own burro population management plan.

To help restore the balance of burros and wildlife, BLM gathers wild horses and burros and offers them for adoption to individuals and groups willing to provide long-term care. Since its adoption program started in 1973, the agency has adopted out more than 207,000 horses and burros.

Martin said his goal on the advisory board, should he be appointed, is appropriate management of all species to ensure a “thriving ecological balance.”

“I have not now, nor would I ever espouse the total elimination of burros off the landscape,” he said.

Martin was a proponent of keeping burros in Oatman. They would not be subject to capture.

“So when some people or groups of people state or insinuate that I am a burro hater, that is just not true,” he said. “I have always kept an open and objective mind when it comes to burros. There is a serious problem out there, and something needs to be done and done quickly, or else we are going to lose one of our pristine desert areas.

“Taking the thought process ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is simply not a viable way to solve the issues.”