Cute, troubled, and troubled: California’s wild donkeys meet drier deserts

KArin Usko and her husband John Auborn often hike in the mountains north of their home in Ridgrecrest, trying to spot wild donkeys.

Recently they have noticed the consequences of the ongoing drought in California.

“In some areas where the springs are running dry [we’re] Carcasses of the horses and donkeys to see,” said Auborn.

Further east, near Needles, in 2010 a rancher discovered 56 dead donkeys at the mouth of a dry spring.

As temperatures soared to nearly 120 degrees this summer, the source the donkeys depend on for water retreated into the soil of the Mojave Desert.

“We don’t want them to die of thirst or do anything else or even suffer because of this,” said Carl Symons, field manager for the Bureau of Land Management.

Congress in 1971 named wild donkeys and horses “living symbols” of the West and ordered their protection from capture, harassment, and death on public lands.

It’s hard not to find these inquisitive, fuzzy-eared equines adorable. And many do. But they can also mow down vegetation, stomp on the homes of native species, and even disrupt military operations.

The number of animals has tripled since the 1970s, and not everyone agrees on how to bring the population down to what the government considers to be sustainable levels.

The Bureau of Land Management predicts there will be “catastrophic damage to the land, to other species, and to wild horses and donkeys themselves” if the population is not controlled.

A bald, fair-skinned man wearing sunglasses holds his hat in his right hand and stands near an enclosure that used to house wild horses and donkeys.

Carl Symons oversees the praesidium’s Ridgecrest Field Office, which includes the regional horse and donkey enclosures.

The Origin of the California Donkeys

The donkeys that roam California today are likely descended from the surefooted beasts of burden first brought to the area by Spanish colonists in the 15th century and later by gold rush fortune seekers.

“Many of these donkeys have survived, even though their owners have perished in the harsh desert conditions,” says a Bureau document.

Sometimes wild donkeys and horses were hunted and killed.

The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act 1971 charged the Bureau of Land Management with the protection of animals on the public lands it supervised. The agency must balance the needs of animals with those of livestock and native species.

“If we don’t manage the habitat for these animals, they can literally eat themselves outside and inside,” said Amy Dumas, California Wild Horse and Burro Program Manager. “We’re trying to avoid that.”

The Bureau calculates what it believes to be a sustainable number of donkeys for each region based on the availability of food, water, space, and the presence of other wild and domesticated animals such as cattle.

California has an estimated 3,416 donkeys on the Bureau’s land — more than seven times what the agency considers appropriate.

There are several factors that make population control difficult. The donkeys have very few natural predators and herds can double every five years. Scrubby desert vegetation, unattractive to many animals, makes for a fine burro buffet.

Piute Mountain’s herd near Needles underscores the difficulty of keeping the population in check. The bureau’s management plan calls for zero donkeys in the area, in part because donkeys compete with bighorn sheep for scarce resources and trample on the burrows of endangered desert tortoises.

Still, they’ve persisted for years through at least three separate attempts to round them up — including after the 2010 die-off.

“We could say we’re going to remove as many animals as we can, and we’re still going to miss them,” Dumas said. In the meantime, new donkeys can immigrate from elsewhere.

The donkeys are also removed if they are perceived as “nuisance”. For example:

  • At the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, donkeys have caused car crashes, damaged equipment and “created a high potential for plane crashes on runways.”
  • A rare earth mining company asked the bureau to remove donkeys from its Mountain Pass property after it reported “severe damage to the property and surrounding landscape” in 2016.
  • In the Inland Empire, cars collide with donkeys on roads and highways, which can be deadly for both animals and drivers.

Administration is more difficult when not dealing with donkeys that are not on federal lands and not within the purview of the bureau.

“I wish there was more protection for the donkeys that are out here,” said Rodney Amans of Moreno Valley, who said his family adored donkeys.

“You … go out of your garage to go to work at 5 a.m. and you have four or five donkeys lying in your front yard,” resident Rodney Amans said. “At Christmas it’s like a big nativity scene.”

An argument against burros being ‘invasive’

Much academic research focuses on the negative impacts of wild donkeys on the environment, but recent evidence shows that their presence could benefit native species.

A donkey on the doorstep of a suburban home in the Moreno Valley.  In the background other donkeys are grazing on the lawn.

Rodney Aman’s ring doorbell captured this photo of the wild donkeys in the front yard of his Moreno Valley home.

Erick Lundgren, a postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University, has studied donkeys digging for water in dry riverbeds in the Arizona desert.

“There’s a constant parade of wildlife drinking from these fountains,” Lundgran said. “There would be orioles and squirrels and warblers to drink right around my feet because it would be the only water for miles.”

Mountain lions in Death Valley National Park eat wild donkeys, changing their behavior in the process.

“The donkeys avoid risky areas and spend less time in wetlands and have less impact on vegetation,” Lundgren said.

He said labeling the donkeys as invaders limits what scientists can learn about how they interact with the environment.

“I don’t think we should moralize them in any direction,” Lundgren said. “I think we should just try to understand these organisms and then respect them as we would respect any living thing.”

Control of the donkey population

The Bureau of Land Management has experimented with donkey birth control, but for now, translocation, along with adoption, is the agency’s primary tool to curb the donkey population.

Across the country, the agency rounded up more horses and donkeys in the last fiscal year than it has since 1985.

Under a wide blue sky, a small group of donkeys graze on sparse grass in a mammoth pen.  Most of the country is just dirt.

In mid-September there were about 400 donkeys and 363 horses at Ridgecrest Corrals. The facility can accommodate up to 1,000 animals.

More than two-thirds of the Wild Horse and Burro program’s $112 million budget this year went toward caring for animals removed from the range.

“We’re trying to do our best with limited resources and we can’t make everyone happy,” Dumas said.

Some proponents would like to see major changes in U.S. donkey management policy, beginning with the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act.

In early October, Raúl Grijalva, chairman of Arizona’s House Natural Resources Committee, introduced a new version of the 1971 law that would prioritize fertility control changes, among other changes, to limit the population.

Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue CEO Mark Meyers says private rescues like his should play a role in the management of animals on public lands.

“My board can make a decision within an hour. We don’t need an act of Congress to change and turn around and make an immediate difference,” said Meyers, whose group makes deals with the National Park Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the military for donkey removal and adoption.

A temporary home in Ridgecrest

At Needles, where the donkeys ran out of water that summer, bureau staff managed to capture about a third of the herd and herd them to the agency’s pens in Ridgecrest.

A light skinned person is hugged by a dark brown donkey.  The animal's eyes are closed and it appears very relaxed as it rests its head on the person's shoulder.

Karin Usko and her donkey Tita Maria hug. “You can feel her peace when you hug her,” she said.

Hundreds of donkeys are waiting here to be adopted. An empty carrot bag near one of the pens is evidence of what the FBI’s Symons says is frequent visits from locals.

Hikers John Auborn and Karin Usko adopted their first donkey in 2016 and have since started a nonprofit organization — California Breakfast Burritos — that trains wild donkeys for adoption.

“I don’t think an animal can hug you sweeter than a donkey,” Usko said. “They put the weight of their head on your shoulder and basically fall asleep.”

The group also hosts an annual pack donkey race, in which people pair with donkeys and run between 10 and 26.2 miles across the desert.

“We take them everywhere we’re invited,” Usko said. This includes the local high school football games. The school mascot? The donkey.

“We need to find long-term solutions that support the land the way we want it and the wild animal population,” Auborn said. “It’s not easy to find the right solution.”

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