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Wild burros wreak havoc on Texas ecology
Updated 12/1/2011 2:53 PM ET
ALPINE, Texas — To the residents of this West Texas city, burros are friendly, intelligent animals that make good pets and are engrained in this country's history.

To state park officials, they're a destructive, invasive menace that cross over from Mexico with disease, foul streams and threaten native plants and wildlife, and should be eliminated. Park rangers have shot and killed more than 120 of the beasts.

"Our mandate is to eliminate all invasive species we can," says Kevin Good, a special assistant with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, citing burro threats to black hawks, gophers, mule deer and other native species. "That's our priority."

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The tactics are drawing outcries from animal rights activists across the USA. The Washington-based Humane Society of the United States has called for a stop to the killings.

"It's not a well-thought-out, well-managed program," says Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife scientist with the group.

The burros — furry, feral cousins to the domesticated donkey — have been crossing over the border from Mexico and into Big Bend Ranch State Park in southwest Texas for years, Good says. Aggressive and territorial, they commandeer watering holes and chase other animals away, he says. They also contaminate the park's natural springs with their droppings. Under the state's ongoing drought, those water sources have become even more precious, Good says.

Most threatened are the bighorn sheep, whose numbers plummeted in the past two decades and which were reintroduced into the park last year in a conservation effort, Good says.

Park rangers roaming the 300,000-acre park are empowered to shoot burros with .30-06 or 7mm-caliber rifles, Good says. An estimated 300 burros roam the park. Rangers have killed at least 128 of them, he says.

"Frankly, it's not something our staff enjoys doing, but it's one of those things we feel just has to be done," Good says.

Burros also wander into neighboring Big Bend National Park, trampling vegetation and rooting out plants. Federal law protects the burros there, says Raymond Skiles, the park's wildlife biologist. So, park rangers engage in a lengthy — and costly — program of corralling and capturing them, checking for diseases and selling the animals at livestock auctions, he says. "We don't shoot burros," Skiles says.

The burro killings have sparked a wave of opposition from locals here. Shooting burros is an inhumane practice not backed by research, says Marjorie Farabee of the Wild Burro Protection League, who has mounted a local campaign to save the animals at Big Bend Ranch.

Brought to North America along with mustangs by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, burros helped settlers inhabit vast stretches of the West. Today, burros aid local ranchers by chasing away bobcats, coyotes and other predators, Farabee says.

Park officials should get a definitive count of the burros and capture and relocate them, not shoot them, she says.

"It's a wrongheaded approach," Farabee says. "If you take out one species that's had a presence here for 500 years, you can be setting up the collapse of other species."

State park officials deny allegations that the burros are being killed to protect bighorn sheep for the benefit of hunters, who generate millions of dollars a year in hunting fees. Hunting bighorn sheep is prohibited at Big Bend Ranch State Park, and park officials have no plans to allow it in the near future, Good says.

In Alpine, "Burro Friendly" stickers appear in the windows of downtown shops and burro talk buzzes through coffee shops. Last month, more than three dozen people attended a pro-burro rally here. A local rancher brought along Liberty, a 5-month-old, gray-furred rescue burro.

Attendees suggested alternatives to killing burros, including darting and sterilizing them, and read burro-inspired poems. Curtis Imrie, a burro rancher and breeder from Arkansas Valley, Colo., said he would take as many burros as the state would give him.

"They deserve better than these grotesque killings," he says.

But the canyon-like terrain of the park and the burros' smart, aggressive nature makes corralling them a challenge, Good says. Three years ago, park officials hired a rescue agency to go into Big Bend and gather as many burros as they could. They failed to trap a single animal, Good says.

"We certainly don't have the resources to spend a lot of time and effort doing that," he says. "We're struggling to keep park sites open."

Besides driving other animals away, the burros destroy local vegetation and overwhelm most other species, says Sahotra Sarkar, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas in Austin who has studied burros on both sides of the border. Without some reduction, the burro could quickly endanger the bighorn sheep population, he says.

"They're a threat to the entire ecology of the region," Sarkar says. "Whichever method you choose to deal with it, the problem is very real."

Posted 11/30/2011 8:56 PM ET
Updated 12/1/2011 2:53 PM ET
Cheyenne Rondeaux, 9, holds on to Penelope, a rescued burro, at Firelight South Ranch in Alpine, Texas. State officials say the burros are invasive and threaten the area's ecology.
By Fred Covarrubias, for USA TODAY
Cheyenne Rondeaux, 9, holds on to Penelope, a rescued burro, at Firelight South Ranch in Alpine, Texas. State officials say the burros are invasive and threaten the area's ecology.