“Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; … and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” – The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971
It looked liked the bleeding would finally be stopped. In 1971 an American Congress finally put the brakes on what had been an ongoing slaughter for one hundred years. The killing of America’s wild horse and burro populations looked like it was finally coming to an end. It was quite a sea change from a hundred years earlier when American governments had advocated the extermination of the wild horse as a means of bringing the American Indian to heel.
Even more important than just stopping the killing was their recognition that these animals needed to have territory to live in. “They are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands” would seem to guarantee both the horse, and their far less glamourous cousin the burro, at least equal standing on public lands as all other creatures, but a law is only as strong as the will to enforce it. There seems to be plenty of interest groups with money who have the ability to sap the will needed to enforce that law.
Cattle ranchers want the land the horses use because of how little they are charged to use public lands for grazing rights, and have been more than willing to supply the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with erroneous statistics and misleading information in order to support their cause. The BLM has done their bit for agribusiness by actually ensuring the wild horse population has been reduced by over 50 percent since Congress passed the 1971 act that supposedly ensured their population would be stabilized.
If the campaign carried out against the horses wasn’t bad enough, it pales in comparison to the one currently being waged against the humble burro. Not only have they seen the amount of their habitat space gradually eroded until now it stands at less than 50 per cent of what they had in 1971, herd levels have also been reduced to such an extent that most have fallen below numbers considered sufficient to maintain genetic integrity (150) and some herds are so small (50 or less) that inbreeding is a serious risk.
Since 1971 wild burros have gone from being “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the west” to exotic feral animals that are interfering with the natural order. It’s interesting how this wasn’t considered a problem until a few years ago when a move was made by big game hunters in North America to reintroduce the Desert Big horn sheep into the same areas that burros were already grazing.
While it’s despicable in the first place to re-introduce an animal into the wild just so you can hunt it, displacing another animal and calling it “Wild Life Management” is hypocrisy of the highest order. What’s been happening is a smear campaign that would be worthy of any dis-information program run by the current administration. First, start referring to the burros as feral and exotic instead of wild so it sounds like they were a recently introduced species instead of having been here longer than almost all breeds of domestic cattle.
Like the horse, the burro was re-introduced to North America in the 15th and 16th century with the arrival of the Spanish. The burro was especially adaptable to the climate of the Southern United States and Mexico, as the breed that came with the Spanish had originated in North Africa. Not only does it require minimal amounts of water for survival, it can also obtain most of its required water from the scrub brush that makes up the majority of its diet.
Like horses, burros were at various points in time released into the wild and then vanished into the wilderness that could support little other wildlife. It’s only been since another introduced creature — man — wanted to make use of its habitat that the burro became a “Wild Life Management” issue. Unlike horses, they weren’t even a concern for cattle ranchers because they lived in territories that couldn’t sustain cattle.
Once state governments became aware of just how potentially lucrative the Big Horn Sheep hunt could be, (with licenses fetching up to $100,000 each at auctions), burros became a nuisance creature that needed to be dealt with. All of a sudden we hear they are a threat to water supplies, their populations are too high, and they are a threat to the precious Big Horn Sheep gold mine.
What’s even more disquieting is that many of the Big Horn Sheep are being introduced into areas where there was no prior sheep population. In fact the Arizona Desert Big Horn Sheep Society boasts that over 1,000 animals have been introduced and have established viable populations in ten mountain ranges where they didn’t previously exist.
Recently I received documents that are a record of an investigation into the discovery of burro carcasses in Big Bend Ranch State Park in Texas. As these documents have not yet been made public, my source has asked to remain anonymous for the time being. The documents in question are the transcripts of interviews conducted by an Internal Affairs officer who was following up on complaints of potential animal cruelty.
Park rangers, having discovered the bodies of burros rotting by the road in the park, dutifully reported the crime to state authorities. The only problem was that the shootings had been carried out by the Deputy Director of Texas State Parks, Dan Sholly, and States Parks Region 1 Director, Michael Hill, with the full support of the State Parks Director, Walter D. Danby. When interviewed in early November, the three men freely admitted that the killings had taken place, and had only just recently stopped.
According to Mr. Sholly’s testimony, they started shooting the burros in April of 2007 until they were ordered to stop on October 23rd, 2007 (although he did admit that a final burro was shot on Oct. 26th, three days after the stop-kill order was issued). According to Sholly, they “kept a running total in our mind, and initially in our reports, the number we had shot was 71 burros.” He also said he had shot burros on five or six trips into the park, but not every time he went there, mainly because he didn’t see them every time he went into the park.
In his testimony, Mike Hill said that July of 2007 was the last record he has of burros being shot, and that Dan told him to keep killing burros and not to write anything down about it after that time. He said Dan had told him something had been said in Austin (State government offices for Texas are located in the city of Austin) about the burros being killed. It’s interesting to note that, in his testimony, Dan Sholly claims he never told any park employee to stop recording the number of burros being shot.
It’s also interesting to note that in his initial interview with the investigating officer, the dates Mike Hill said the shootings took place contradicted those given by Mr. Sholly, but two days later he claims to have reviewed “contemporaneous notes” to refresh his memory and changed the dates to coincide and agree with those offered by Mr. Sholly. He had said in his first interview that the killing of burros had started in April of 2006, a full year earlier than the date he came back with of April 2007. He might have simply confused the dates, but then again, since Sholly denied telling him to stop recording his kills, I have to wonder.
Both Mr. Sholly and Mr. Hill testified that the killing was necessitated because they wanted to reintroduce Big Horn Sheep to the park and that they had been told that wouldn’t be possible with the burros in place. Mr. Sholly also claims they never went into the park to deliberately hunt for burros, but they were trying to impact on the population by taking targets of opportunity.
The most damming piece of testimony came from State Park Director, Walter D. Dabney. After relaying that he told Mr. Hill and Mr. Sholly they should kill any and all burros on site, he mentions that no other efforts have been made to control the populations in the park since he started. In other words, they haven’t attempted to capture or relocate the herd by any of the means normally followed with protected animals.
I’m not really sure how always carrying a gun and shooting any burro you see on site differs from hunting burros. I’m not a Director of State Parks in Texas, so I wouldn’t know about such distinctions. All I know is that the burro is a protected animal in the wild and is not to be killed or have its habitat displaced by any other animal. Yet in Texas, the people who are running the parks system are guilty of both crimes.
The transcript of the inquiry I received came complete with the investigating officer’s findings and recommendations. The only fault he could find with the indiscriminate killing of a protected species was that the people doing the killing hadn’t bothered to notify the park’s employees in advance that they would be shooting burros in the park. If they had known in advance that the shootings were taking place, they wouldn’t have been surprised to find the rotting burro carcasses beside the road, nor worried that anything untoward was going on.
He recommended that in the future, all park employees be better informed about the park’s wildlife management programs and that proper arrangements should be made to deal with the disposal of the carcasses. Nowhere in his findings or in his recommendations does he mention that burros are a protected animal in the United States or that perhaps they should investigate alternative means of wildlife management instead of killing them.
It took a 25-year fight by concerned citizens and wildlife conservationists to get the American Congress to pass The Wild-Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Thirty-six years later, officers and directors of Public Parks in Texas are flagrantly disregarding the two major provisions of the act. Not only are they depriving the animal of habitat desperately needed to maintain the numbers of wild burros in America, they are also killing them in order to facilitate their supplanting.
Currently there are only five genetically viable burro herds remaining in the wild. If the current rate of attrition of both habitat and animals is allowed to continue, it will result in the extinction of wild burro herds in the American West.
Is this how America preserves its cultural heritage?
Facts and figures concerning the relative sizes of burro herds and Big Horn Sheep populations and habitat, unless otherwise stated, are taken from ”Wild Burros of the American West: A Critical Analysis of the National Status of Wild Burros on Public Lands 2006” by C.R. MacDonald