January 24, 2007

It's roundup time for burros

Herding wild burros - Contractors for the BLM use a helicopter and horses in Ivanpah Valley to round up wild burros. Eric Reed/Staff photographer

Andrew Silva, Staff Writer
SB Sun

As the sun climbed over the mountains, brightening a cold, still morning, the clang, clang, clang of a temporary fence post being pounded into the desert by two cowboys broke the silence.

A yellow helicopter buzzed in the distance, swooping back and forth over the scrubby California terrain near Primm, Nev., its pilot scouting the area between the Clark Mountain range to the north and busy Interstate 15 to the south.

Cowboys and women pulled steel fence sections out of a trailer to set up a corral.

It was time to round up a herd of burros that have called the eastern Mojave Desert home for at least 150 years, maybe longer.

"There's always the idea they are from pioneering the historic West," said Alex Neiberg, the wild horse and burro specialist for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "These are living symbols."

But the burros are considered non- native, and in the decades-long battle to protect the fragile desert, federal land managers decided the animals have to go.

The listing of the desert tortoise as a threatened species in 1990 and the creation of the Mojave National Preserve in 1994 spelled the end for the free-roaming, long-eared icons of the mining and settlement eras.

Biologists worry the burros are a threat to the declining number of desert tortoises, competing for forage and possibly stepping on tortoises or their burrows.

That's nonsense, say some activists fighting to keep the burros on the desert.

"There are too few burros," said Jennifer Foster of Hesperia, who's been trying to save the herd from being purged from the desert. "The burros on Clark Mountain played a historic role in the settlement of the West."

She argued the Clark Mountain herd is genetically unique, with a lineage going back hundreds of years, and should be preserved under federal laws protecting wild burros and historic objects.

As the crew from Utah went to work, Foster and her husband, Ken, sat in their car about a quarter-mile away on a dirt road just north of I-15.

A group of BLM rangers prevented anyone from going toward the corral until the contractor and the BLM's Neiberg were sure it was safe.

Foster hoped her phone would ring with news about an appeal she had pending in front of a judge, seeking to stop the roundup, actually called a "gather."

The call never came.

The judge eventually turned down the request to leave the animals on the land, said Stephen Razo, spokesman for the BLM's California desert district office.

Foster and her husband were joined by Diana Chontos of Olancha, a tiny town on Highway 395 in the foothills of the eastern Sierra Nevada. Chontos' white pickup, parked behind the Fosters' car, sports a personalized license plate: BURRROS.

Chontos established the Wild Burro Rescue and Preservation Project more than 15 years ago as an alternative to a plan to shoot burros in Death Valley, she said. She now cares for 187 burros, supported by donations from members of her organization.

"It seems the goal is not to have a single wild burro left on public land," said Chontos, wearing a poncho and cowboy hat. "The American people want them. People travel from all over the country - `where are the burros?' The only ones they see are at my place."

Out at the gather area, two lines of fence posts were draped with burlap netting, stretching out more than 100 yards and forming a wide "V," called a jute.

The jute acts as a funnel to guide the burros toward the corral.

By late Wednesday morning, after the helicopter had completed a couple of runs, BLM officials began shuttling Foster and the others, two or three at a time, down the dirt road to inspect the burros.

A little after 11 a.m., Greg Cook, 53, of Vernal, Utah, joined his crew on a break to have lunch and a soda.

Picture a cowboy, and Cook is it.

Rail thin with a thick gray mustache, he and his wife run KG Livestock and oversee a group of cheerful, energetic young people who seem more in tune with the 19th century than the 21st.
They spend much of the year traveling the West gathering wild horses and burros for the government.

"I like the animals. I like the burros; I like the horses," Cook said, standing next to the trailer where the long gray and white ears of about 10 burros poked above the side. "It's a good way of living."
There's more to it than it looks, he said.

"So many things to watch for - our own saddle horses, each other, the gates. It's a really tough thing to do," he said. "It takes quite a bit of patience so you don't hurt them."

Adam Goodrich, 20, sitting on the trailer fender, said, "It's out of the ordinary."

As they relaxed and joked around, the radio came to life, with helicopter pilot Rick Harmon saying he was a mile out.

The crew jumped up, with several getting on their horses and grabbing 5-foot-long wands with small strips of cloth at the end.

Chontos, the burro activist from Olancha, walked past the loaded trailer to head back down the road and said to the burros: "Goodbye, sweeties. You're going off to the slave trade."

The helicopter, its skids at times brushing the tops of the creosote bushes, moved the burros toward the jute.

Once in the jute, the horse riders moved the burros toward the corral, flicking the wands beside and above the animals to drive them forward.

Once in the corral and then into the narrow chute, the crew used the signature rapid-fire whistling of a cowboy, along with pleading and pushing, to get the burros boarded.

"Come on. C'mon. There you go," one cowboy in the chute said, until another burro stepped off the trailer and headed back down the wrong way. "Hey. Hey!"

The 96 burros gathered Wednesday and Thursday were taken to a holding area in Ridgecrest and will later be made available for adoption. They cannot, by law, be sold for slaughter.

Neiberg said the effort will continue, perhaps with water trapping, maybe another gather next year, until the herd is "zeroed out," as required by the federal management plans.

There are only a couple of ranges left where burro herds will be allowed to remain - one on the western side of the Colorado River, and another in the area of the Chocolate Mountains between Yuma and Blythe, said Dick Crowe of the BLM.

Foster and the others are heartbroken the burros are disappearing from the sprawling landscape

"Once they're gone, they're gone," Foster said. "... It'll be a sad day when I can't bring my little grandchildren to see burros in their native range."