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Oct 112011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Animal rights supporters are taking aim at Texas’ shoot-to-kill policy against burros in the Big Bend Ranch State Park along the border with Mexico.

Burros, like wild horses, may have come from historic lineages and also may have domestic bloodlines (Photo: Terry Fitch)

Last month, members of the Wild Burro Protection League started a petition on Change.org challenging the shootings after discovering that Texas wildlife officials had killed 50 of the animals over the last year. So far more than 85,000 people have signed the weeks-old petition, which calls out presidential contender Texas Gov. Rick Perry as presiding over a policy that evokes Sarah Palin’s support for the controversial aerial shootings of wolves.

“What Texas is doing may be legal, but we think its an atrocity,” writes petition author, Karen Van Atta Luce.

The animal advocates had been satisfied that Texas had quit exterminating burros after a 2007 incident when the state drew public criticism for killing 71 of the pack animals.

The 2007 episode led to an apparent retreat of the state shootings of the burros. But the WBPL discovered that the killings resumed, apparently in 2010. Texas began what it calls “opportunistic” shootings of the burros, in which park officials are told to shoot the burros when they see them, but are not funded to conduct actual hunts for the animals, according to state documents. The reports, obtained under freedom of information requests, reveal that 50 burros have been shot and killed in the past year.

When members of the Wild Burro Protection League saw the numbers, they thought “Oh my God, that’s a lot of opportunity,” said Van Atta Luce, an environmental scientist from Milwaukee.

The state resumed the shootings of the donkeys because they are a menace to the park environment and it would be too difficult and expensive to round them up, said Texas Parks and Wildlife Department media communications director Tom Harvey.

The current dispute, like the one in 2007, hinges on whether the burros have a rightful place in the region, and whether they should be shot or humanely controlled. The number of burros at risk in the area has not been officially estimated, but is believed to be about 300 and no more than 500.

Van Atta Luce says these animals have a right to live unmolested in the Chihuahuan Biosphere along the border between Texas and Mexico and could be managed without lethal intervention as are the several hundred burros present in national parks.

“They’ve been here a long time. It’s not like some of these things that show up and take over with these dramatic impacts because they’re so different. These burros have been around there for hundreds of years,” Van Atta said.

“The burro’s numbers worldwide are plummeting at an alarming rate,” says Marjorie Farabee, founder of the League, in a blog posting. “Losing this small herd brings them closer to extinction in the wild here. I find this unacceptable.”

Nuisance or Native?

Texas State Parks & Wildlife officials say the burros are predominantly escaped domestic donkeys or their offspring that have immigrated from Mexico and constitute an invasive species that is ruining the land for native animals, such as the Bighorn sheep, an endangered species that the state would like to see regenerated in the area.

“They’re a feral exotic invasive,” said the TPWD’s Harvey. Like feral hogs and the Aoudad or Barbery sheep, which also have proliferated in the area, the burros/donkeys compete with native species for forage and water. They present a special problem, he said, because they defecate in water sources, a serious issue during a drought.

Harvey says it’s a “scientific fact” that the burro is not a native of Texas, though the state wildlife department does not list the animal on its website of “nuisance animals”.

Van Atta disputes that the burro is a non-native, and questions the science behind the state’s position. Her group concedes that some of the Texas burros may have been joined by errant Mexican donkeys, but contend that at least a portion of them trace their genes back generations to native burro populations.

As for the domestic donkey interlopers, she says that only strengthens the group’s concern that their extermination is cruel and unnecessary. Such animals could be put to domestic uses, she said.

“There’s some indication that some domesticated donkeys are making their way across the river and they could be ‘invasive,’” she said. “But a lot of people wouldn’t want the domesticated ones killed either…They’ll probably follow you if you offer them a carrot.”

Park managers and advocates could develop more creative solutions, if the state cannot tolerate the burros’ wanderings on state lands, Van Atta said. Park managers could corral the burros and use them as pack animals for eco tourists. The parks could promote these intelligent heritage animals as symbols of the region, instead of treating them as invaders, she added.

The state’s answer to these ideas: Harvey points to an ill-fated rescue in 2008 when a California group tried, and failed, to capture some of the burros. The department’s shoot-to-kill policy against burros is necessary, he added, because the state does not have the funds to round the burros up and quarantine them as required by federal law.

It’s possible, though, that the TSPW would be open to working with a rescue group willing to fund a rescue operation, he said.

The Wild Burro Protection League fears that the state will not relent on its position to get rid of the burros – by lethal force or otherwise — because state wildlife managers want to restore the Bighorn Sheep to the region and eventually earn revenue from the trophy game hunters the sheep would attract.

Harvey freely admits that the parks department wants to restore the Bighorn, and that the burros are believed to compete with them for food.

But he rejects the contention from critics that officials prefer to cultivate the Bighorn because it could raise big hunting revenues as a prize for big game hunters. The Bighorn is simply a native species with a historic claim to the arid desert region, he said.

Van Atta says her research suggests that the burros and the Bighorn rarely compete for food and water because they exist at different elevations, with the sheep preferring higher altitudes. The burros, she says, may actually assist other animals in finding water in a drought because they will dig into the dirt until they find a water hole.

“Our idea was that we want the wild burros to be kept there because we think they are a part of nature, and they can be managed similar to in the national parks, and not exterminate them,” she said.

“We can all stand by and watch them kill them all until they’re done killing them all, or we rescue them.” So far, some 85,000 people seem to agree.

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