Nature up close: Feral animals

By “Sunday Morning” contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg.

The burros roaming Arizona’s Black Mountains remind visitors of a simpler time in the Old West, a time when human populations were lower and wildlife was abundant. But those times are gone. Today when we look closer at these burros, a problem with no easy answers becomes obvious.

Humans have benefited tremendously from the domestication of animals. Burros (Spanish for donkeys) were first domesticated from the African ass at least 5,000 years ago. They proved to be a very hardy and helpful companion, especially to desert dwellers. Today they are still commonly used to haul heavy loads, primarily in China, Africa and Latin America.

In the U.S., the image of a gold prospector with a burro carrying his worldly possessions is one ingrained in our memory of the West. This image is based on reality because these hardy animals can survive long treks through the desert without much water and less food than a horse. When the gold diggings played out, some prospectors abandoned their burros to fend for themselves, which they readily did.

When animals become feral due to human neglect or accidental release, they can cause serious problems. Feral animals are domesticated species released into the wild. Many land managers in the West (including the Black Mountain area of northwest Arizona, a fragile desert environment susceptible to over-grazing) consider burros to be one of those problem species. 

The epitome of a successful feral animal, the Black Mountain burros have no natural enemies. They have proliferated to the point the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has tried burro population control. Because people empathize with burros, euthanasia is not an attractive option. Recently the BLM, with financial support from the Humane Society, began testing burro birth control methods, which are expensive. 

Wildlife, cattle, and feral burros compete for the same limited food and water supply. However, feral…

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