January 26, 2007

Burro ouster called an environmental necessity

Amanda Lucidon / The Press-Enterprise
Wranglers and officials gather around a helicopter as they go over details of removing wild burros from the California desert.

U.S. says Mojave ouster necessary

The Press-Enterprise

On the eastern edge of San Bernardino County, a piece of the Old West came to an end this week, with the help of a modern-day wrangler in the sky.

Wranglers and officials gather around a helicopter as they go over details of removing wild burros from the California desert.

A thudding helicopter emerged from the distant folds of the desert and darted around power lines. The pilot nudged wild burros at a fast clip through several miles of the creosote-dotted landscape.

The burros, young and old, were driven from their longtime home around Clark Mountain, the nearly 8,000-foot chalky-brown peak that gave the Clark herd its name. Like thousands before them, the burros will be put up for adoption.

Although these particular burros couldn't have known any better, they wandered into a part of the Mojave National Preserve and a neighboring valley considered by the federal government to be critical for the survival of the desert tortoise. Once there, the burros munched on the same plants needed by the lumbering reptiles, officials with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said.

Although cattle -- which eat the same plants -- also roam the area, they are managed by a rancher who keeps them moving, said Edythe Seehafer, an environmental planner for the bureau. The burros, she said, are left up to their own devices.

"The deciding factor was, could we keep them out," she said, referring to Shadow Valley. The answer was no. "They're animals. They migrate."

A secondary reason dates back to the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. The act transferred 37,000 acres in and around the Clark Mountain range to the National Park Service as a unit of the new Mojave National Preserve.

The move, according to a bureau study, transferred the only year-round springs in the eastern portion of the herd area to the preserve. A management plan drafted later for the preserve said the agency would fence off their sprawling unit, a move the bureau said would put the burros in trouble in the arid landscape where water resources are precious and few.

Larry Whalon, the preserve's resources chief, said the burros are not native to the area -- and they simply wanted to protect the land with the fence if the herd stayed.

Seehafer said the main issue was that burros out-compete tortoises for food, which is especially problematic in years of drought when less vegetation grows.

Thus, in a three-day roundup that ended Friday, the bureau and its contractors gathered 96 burros and drove them for three hours to Ridgecrest, where they will be put up for adoption. The removal effort was estimated to cost $70,000, said Alex Neibergs, a bureau wild horse and burro specialist.

Since 1977, some 3,500 wild horses and burros have been removed from the California desert, said Dick Crowe, a bureau regional planner. They are the descendants of those brought by mining prospectors and Spanish colonists hundreds of years ago.

The hardy animals flourished in the desert because they reproduce quickly, have few natural predators and low incidents of disease.

Today's desert is much different, Seehafer said, with an imperiled tortoise whose habitat has been taken over by homes, shopping malls and an expanded military base: the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, near Barstow.

The burro-gathering site was less than a mile north of Interstate 15, within eyesight of traffic and casinos across the Nevada border in Primm.

"There are more and more pressures on the desert, and the desert really can't absorb all those pressures," Seehafer said. "It's not like the desert is a real lush place, anyways."

Today, there are only two wild-burro herds of any significant size that remain in the desert, and they roam near the Colorado River, Crowe said.

As 28 burros were rounded up Thursday, five activists concerned about the animals' welfare fanned out across the range, watching the activity through binoculars after losing an appeal filed with the bureau to stop the event altogether.

"It's a very sad thing for Americans to loose this part of their heritage," said Jennifer Foster, of Hesperia. She spoke passionately about the burros as gentle animals, and said she considered their removal an eradication.

Katie Blunk, a veterinarian with a unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, checked the animals after they were funneled into a chute and a holding pen by horse-straddling wranglers waving white flags that rattled.

Blunk said they looked fine, even the last bunch that one of the activists said appeared to have been pushed too fast by the helicopter.

"They're not breathing hard, they barely broke a sweat," she said, as she watched the animals in the pen.

Blunk's assessment did little to soothe Foster. She said primitive apparatus called arrastras, which were pulled by burros to crush the mined ore, still remain in the nearby mountains.

"Without them," Foster said of the burros, "the West would have never been able to be settled."