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The Last Burros of the Mojave Desert: A Christmas Story that Needs A Happy Ending

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The time has come to speak of the animals in attendance at the nativity, especially the burro, the stubborn, steadfast, and hardy little four-legged who has served us well through the ages, with barely a tip of the hat in the annals. It was a burro that carried Mary and Joseph to the stable where Christ was born, a burro that carried Christ into Jerusalem for one of his last acts, a burro that accompanied his followers into other empires and across time, finally helping trappers, prospectors, and soldiers make their way into the Old Testament scenery of the American West. Since then his descendants have lived in the desert, fending off predators, joy riders with guns, and government round-ups. But now the burros' time in the Mojave may be coming to an end, because of a federal policy of "zeroing out" the herds in areas where other critters and half-baked attempts to manage water that has already been mismanaged have taken precedence.

And who are these burros exactly? Well, let's meet Brighty, one of our western pioneers. There's a statue of Brighty the burro in the Grand Canyon Lodge. Brighty lived at the Grand Canyon from 1892 to 1922, along with countless other burros whose ancestors had come with the Spanish and carried the ensuing parade. Named after the Bright Angel Creek in the canyon, Brighty originally belonged to a gold prospector. When the prospector was killed, Brighty was adopted by the park service. He helped build the canyon's first suspension bridge across the Colorado River and carried Teddy Roosevelt's packs on a hunt for mountain lions. He was an icon of the West when he died, and it would seem only fitting that the government honor his life by making sure that others of his kind could flourish in their desert home.

As I've written on this site, passage of the federal Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971 spearheaded by Wild Horse Annie did exactly that - but in spirit only. It gave authority for mustangs and burros to the Bureau of Land Management, which meant that other agencies such as the National Park Service could make their own policy towards these animals if they lived on NPS land. To the park service, burros were not free-roaming but non-native, which meant that they had to go (see article on wild horses). In 1979, the extirpation began - with Brighty's enduring family. Because getting them out of the Grand Canyon would be difficult, all 577 of them were to be shot. The late writer and animal defender Cleveland Amory intervened, along with his organization, the Fund for Animals, putting together a daring and complicated rescue in which the burros were airlifted from the canyon and taken to his Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, which he founded for this occasion.

But that was the beginning of the end for the burro in national parks and preserves. Since then, NPS has continued its policy of "direct reduction," and thousands of burros have either been shot by contract hunters or harried to their doom or into overcrowded government adoption pipelines in cruel airborne round-ups. From 1987 to 1994, the park service shot 400 burros in Death Valley alone - just one of various burro sites all over the desert West. When Death Valley went from monument to park status in 94, the park service amped up its plans to remove burros - and Death Valley's remaining wild horses. But another friend of the burro stepped up, just in time.

This was Diana Chontos, In 1990, the long-time rescuer of burros had taken six of them and made a two-year cross country wilderness trek through California to draw attention to their plight. When she heard about what was about to happen to the Death Valley burros in 94, she approached NPS with a plan. After lengthy and difficult talks, she and NPS came to an agreement: the agency would not shoot burros if her organization, Wild Burro Rescue in Olancha, California just to the west of Death Valley, would organize, pay for, and remove the burros themselves. And that's what she's been doing since then. "These annual live captures are conducted in hazardous conditions in rugged and remote mountain wilderness," she says. She almost died of renal failure at a recent capture because she just couldn't get enough water over a six-day period. And there were only two people doing the capture - she and her late partner, Tom Allewelt, who trimmed the hooves of the rescued burros and horses and helped to gentle them at their sanctuary in the Owens Valley. There are still a few burros in Death Valley and soon, perhaps sometime next year, another capture will be planned - if she can raise the funds and head off a park service hunt. And that's the only reason she takes the burros out of the park - not for adoption, which is BLM policy.

On January 19th, 2007, the burros that live in the Clark Mountains of the Mojave Desert - the last in that region - will be gone, taken in a federal round-up (in this case by the BLM, which manages the area in question), perhaps memorialized like Brighty in a statue at the Mojave National Preserve, which has now turned its sights on that particular herd, whose home turf is the highest peak in that part of the desert at 7929 feet. This is on the north side of the preserve and sometimes if you're driving east on I-15, you can see them hanging out at Excelsior Mine Road. As with wild horses, there's a dispute about exactly how many burros are left. Locals say maybe 30; the feds say 2-300. There's also a dispute over access to water, which was closed off when the park service took over part of the burros' range. NPS originally agreed to have water piped back into the BLM part of the burros' range, but then reversed course. "Concerned citizens have volunteered labor and materials to complete the simple project at no cost to taxpayers," says Virginie Parant, of
the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. But so far, plans for the round-up are still in place. In 2005, another herd was taken off the preserve, and - according to the desert grapevine - two may have been shot in the process; there are photos of one burro with a bullet to the head circulating the ethers (although it's not clear which round-up that came from) and another was allegedly run to the point of exhaustion and death - the rumor is that he died a very slow and painful death as the contractors may have stood by. Not surprising if true; I have heard of and been an eyewitness to a staggering amount of tax-subsidized government abuse before, during, and after round-ups of wild horses and burros.

"They are destroying our Western heritage," says Jennifer Foster, a 23-year resident of Hesperia near the preserve. Jennifer and her husband Ken are two of a small group of high-desert locals who are planning a legal action to stop this impending and most final act. At a recent BLM public comments meeting in Barstow, Mojave native Bobby Parker asked preserve officials if they knew of any studies that showed how the desert tortoise was faring since burro removal had been amped up in the region, given the fact that the burro is said to have a negative impact on the endangered species and that's one of the reasons it's being removed. No one could answer the question. (And by the way, the tortoise is one of my totems and I'm all in favor if its protection. But the Mojave is one vast creche indeed, with plenty of room at the inn for all manner of creatures, especially when water sources aren't blocked off). A few months ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to the Interior Department, suggesting that when she lobbied for the Desert Protection Act which passed in 1994, she didn't intend for all burros to be eliminiated from the Mojave. The letter is posted here, along with information about other actions that can be taken. Asked about the letter at the hearing, officials said it had no bearing on their mandate.

Burros have much to tell us, as Diana Chontos says. In 2000, she rescued a burro from Death Valley and called him Yaqui. "He was respected by all of the younger jacks- the male burros - and they didn't chase him from food or water. He loved to be brushed and hugged. But one day he began to grow weak and could no longer get up from his naps without being helped and towards the end we rigged a blanket for shade and called a vet to ease his passing. One by one all 32 jacks came by and touched him some place on his body, then went back to their hay. Shortly after the last jack paid his respects, Yaqui took a deep breath and died." He was 50 years old, the vet said, the oldest equine he had ever seen. Had he helped a miner named Pegleg Pete find water? Maybe he had once led a lost pilgrim back to the trail. Or maybe he just lived in the Mojave Desert - for a long time, until he had to go.

THIS IS DEDICATED TO BARRY BRESLOW, TIRELESS ADVOCATE FOR WILD BURROS, WHO PASSED AWAY IN 2006, AND THE 49 BURROS WHO WERE GUNNED DOWN BY CULPRITS UNKNOWN ON GOOD FRIDAY, 1990, OUTSIDE OATMAN, ARIZONA.