December 12, 2006

Roundup opposed

Chuck Mueller, Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun [San Bernardino, CA]

Ken and Jennifer Foster of Hesperia are battling to save a herd of wild burros that roam freely on the lower slopes of Clark Mountain in the eastern Mojave Desert.

They are among a group of animal-rights advocates opposing a plan by a federal agency to capture as many as 150 burros in a proposed helicopter-assisted roundup Jan. 19.

The plan is to put the burros up for adoption as pets.

Three federal agencies are involved in the decision to remove the burros from land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management: the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM.

Neither the Park Service nor Fish and Wildlife want the burros. They are banned from the national parks because they are not native and compete with native creatures for survival. Fish and Wildlife says they compete with the endangered desert tortoise.

The Fosters paint a colorful picture of the burros from Western lore. "These animals are a living heritage of the Old West," Jennifer Foster said. "It would be a complete travesty to remove them from their native range."

Her husband says: "They're as much a part of the West as the horse and wagon and should be left to graze where they've been over 100 years."

The Bureau of Land Management, which administers rangeland at Clark Mountain, sees burro removal as a necessity.

"Part of the herd area contains critical habitat of the endangered desert tortoise," said BLM's John Dearing. "And creation of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994 transferred the only springs (at Clark Mountain) with yearlong surface water to the National Park Service."

Also in 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that wild burros be banned from grazing in desert wildlife management areas, including the herd area at Clark Mountain, to help restore tortoise populations.

Meanwhile, the park service management plan for the Clark Mountain area called for removing burros from the new national preserve and fencing off burros from the water sources.

A public meeting on the proposed burro roundup will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the BLM's Barstow field office, 2601 Barstow Road. Public comments on an environmental assessment for the proposal will be accepted until Dec. 29 at the bureau's Needles field office, 1303 South Highway 95.

The bureau estimates there are 100 to 150 wild burros within or adjacent to the 233,000-acre Clark Mountain herd area. An adjacent 37,000 acres on the mountain is in the national preserve.

The bureau's burro capture plan calls for rounding up the animals and placing them in BLM's national wild horse and burro adoption program, administered at Ridgecrest.

"Under the proposal, the capture and removal of wild burros would be aided by a helicopter at gathering sites," Dearing said. "The helicopter would be used to locate and herd targeted animals to capture sites."

Wranglers on the ground would corral the burros.

Two other roundup methods are also proposed: trapping animals by enticing them with hay or luring them to water sites. Attracted by hay or water, the burros would be captured in portable pens with gates triggered after the animals were inside.

The environmental assessment of the capture plan said wranglers would ensure the burros are treated humanely.

But Jennifer Foster calls helicopter captures dangerous for the animals.

"During a roundup last September, a beautiful jack ran until it collapsed, and then was dragged by ropes by two mounted wranglers," she said.

The animals were abused by one of the wranglers, Foster said, and "one was left to die a very agonizing death over 14 to 16 hours."

The Fosters, 25-year residents of Hesperia who founded a lobbying group called Public Lands for Public Use, have owned horses and burros for three decades. They recently acquired 10 Clark Mountain burros from the bureau's wild horse and burro adoption program and plan to take them to animal sanctuaries, they said.

"We both love animals," Ken Foster said. "A big share of our lives has been devoted to riding and caring for horses and burros."

"We absolutely must stop this roundup," said Jennifer Foster. "If we don't, these living symbols of the Old West will be gone forever."