All photos: Jessica Roberts

On a recent trip to Death Valley I was introduced to a member of the desert’s ecology: wild burros. New to me, not the desert, wild burros have been a part of Death Valley and the Mojave Desert landscape since the late 19th century. The National Park Service identifies wild burros as an invasive species and has made attempts to remove them in the past. They interrupt the park’s natural ecosystem, consuming large amounts of water and vegetation.

Donkeys are thought to have first been domesticated about 5,000 years ago in Egypt or the Middle East. They were introduced to the U.S. by the Spaniards in the 1500’s and became a useful pack animal to prospectors and miners. The ghost towns and relics, as well as the donkey’s, were left behind and still make their mark on the landscape today.

In 1920 the Department of the Interior identified the wild burros as a major threat to the desert and over decades thousands of burros were shot. In 1971 the Wild and Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was created, protecting the wild donkeys on lands managed by the BLM and the Forest Service. Its creation added pressure on the Park’s Service. In the 1970s and 1980s a three phase approach was instilled to round-up, adopt out, and shoot any burros that were left. Estimates now indicate anywhere from 750 and 2,000 burros now call Death Valley home. The Bureau of Land Management sees the burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West”. I will say after seeing them from a distance, images of westward expansion and romanticized notions of the nations history were abundant.

The consequences of the burros in the landscape is a complex issue deserving to be evaluated from many different perspectives. They can be devasting to perennial grasses native animals rely upon. However, one biologist found burros can dig water wells that support a number of birds and mammals. Cottonwoods, willows, and other plants have been found to sprout from burro wells. In 2017 the Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue began work to remove 2,500 wild burros from the Death Valley National Park and the Mojave National Preserve by transporting them to training facilities. The Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue has relocated over 9,000 animals in 17 years. Ultimately my experience with the wild burros of Death Valley left me feeling conflicted about their presence and the ongoing methods of their removal, reflective of the complexity of untangling introduced naturalized species from the landscape they’ve established themselves into.

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