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Burros a Burden in Grand Canyon

Animals: Despite their charm, the North African imports threaten the fragile ecosystem by damaging plants and elbowing out indigenous species.

October 03, 1999|CHRIS KAHN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HUALAPAI INDIAN RESERVATION, Ariz. — A burro digs his hoof in the desert soil and blows a warning snort. The wild donkey has claimed the limestone walls of the Grand Canyon as his home, but he's living in the wrong desert.

Miners led the first burros, native to the plains of North Africa, down into the Grand Canyon more than a century ago to help pack out copper, asbestos and lead. When the miners left, they set the burros free.

Today thousands of burros roam the deserts of California, Arizona and Nevada and are damaging the fragile environment. The burros cut jagged trails into the crumbling canyon walls, munch native grasses and push around bighorn sheep.

Evicting them has been harder than anyone expected.

Rangers have used guns, lassos, even helicopters to drive most burros out of the Grand Canyon National Park. But some stubborn ones still cling to remote areas. They've also overrun the Hualapai Indian reservation next door.

"I hope that every time park rangers see a burro, they go out there quickly and the animal is [shot]," said Jim Walters, deputy wilderness program coordinator for the National Park Service.

Walters was put in charge of dealing with wild burros for the national park in the 1970s, when their numbers soared. He learned that doing what's best for the canyon can be tough when it involves killing invaders that are wrapped into canyon lore.

Untended miners' burros turned wild and quickly settled into the desert with homesteaders. Some locals loved the stout, floppy-eared animals, and many turned them into pets.

"They also taste pretty good if you know how to cook 'em right," said Karen Landis, who has lived close to the South Rim for more than 30 years. "They make an excellent jerky."

In 1953, Marguerite Henry wrote a book about a free-spirited little burro named Brighty whose walking path became trails now used by tourists.

At the same time, park rangers at the Grand Canyon were shooting burros on sight, Walters said. Rangers didn't get all of them, and burros eventually became pests again.

In the 1970s and '80s, burros raided campsites, eating everything from toilet paper to toothpaste. They left behind trails of dung and urine.

Burros are more than a nuisance; they're a threat to the canyon, said George Ruffner, a biologist who studied the burros.

They're so heavy that they tromp down the soil, making it hard for native grasses and brush to grow. As these plants disappear, indigenous animals move away.

"The impact these things wreak on the environment is substantial," Ruffner said.

When Walters announced plans to start shooting burros again, conservation groups, animal-rights groups, even schoolchildren came out to protest. Some came forward to adopt burros.

"It hurt me to see the prejudice against burros, because it says the world is only meant for certain people," said Karen Sussman, executive director for the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, which helped force the park service to reconsider its proposal. "I think they're beautiful. They have those little eyes, those fuzzy ears that stick up. But it's beyond that. You can't help but be on their side when there are so many people out to destroy them."

Cleveland Amory, an author and environmentalist, offered to airlift burros out of the canyon and put them up for adoption. He contracted helicopter pilots to spook burros out of the canyons and toward a team of cowboys, who lassoed, hogtied and hooked them to the helicopter.

It wasn't easy.

Burros are smart, said Mike Landis, a cowboy who helped catch burros for the park service. The more they roped, the harder the burros got to catch. They spooked quicker than before. And when cornered, they learned to dart behind junipers to slip away from his lasso.

"They'll bite you," Landis said.

They removed more than 500 burros from the canyon at a cost of half a million dollars. But because some burros eluded cowboys, it's only a matter of time before they become a problem again.

"It's like leaving one or two rats in the house after you've tried to kill them all," Walters said. "They're eventually going to come back."

Even with a shooting program, Ruffner said, burros likely are here to stay. Nobody knows how many are running wild, but the Bureau of Land Management alone estimates there are more than 7,000 wild burros on its land in 10 western states. Their numbers are growing every day.

"Their reproductive rate is too good," Ruffner said. "You get one jack and a couple of jennies and voila!"

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