By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“The preserve has designated the elimination of the burro from within its borders as a top resource-management priority,” NPS announced a couple of years ago. Of course, there’s always a reason. In this case, the burro, like the wild horse, is seen as an animal that destroys habitat — habitat that should only be destroyed by cattle — but of course that’s not how NPS frames it. As this organization sees it, the burro is an enemy of the endangered desert tortoise. But according to the late Barry Bledsoe, who was an advocate for the Eastern Mojave and Death Valley burros, the animals “pose no threat to the tortoise. There is no documented sighting of a tortoise that has been stepped on by a burro. Burros do not eat tortoises. Burros typically roam in the high country, while the tortoise is in the low flats.” Still, since the tortoise is a California native, it takes priority in the what-to-save contest.
I have no argument against protecting the desert tortoise — to me, it’s a living totem and, with the Desert Protection Act of 1994, it was given a slim chance of surviving decades of predation and unchecked development. But the answer is: Let’s manage the burro, not wipe it out. If government strives for diversity in human population centers, then why not in parks? There’s plenty of room for burros, tortoises and even one or two cows. Moreover, the non-native argument is disingenuous, given that NPS violates this rule when it feels like it. On the Cape Cod National Seashore, for instance, it releases non-native pheasants for sport shooting.
“They are destroying our Western heritage,” says Jennifer Foster, a 23-year resident of Hesperia, near the preserve. Jennifer is one of a small group of high-desert locals who are planning a legal action to stop this impending and most final act. “The Clark Mountain burros are special,” she says. “They’re the last of their kind.” Any sort of lawsuit, however, could take months, if not years, and meanwhile, burro sanctuaries around the region are counting on new arrivals in 2006 as the NPS gets ready to wipe Brighty’s descendants off the map.
As Diana Chontos says, burros have much to tell us. In 2000, she rescued a burro from Death Valley and called him Yaqui. “He was respected by all of the younger jacks — the male burros — and they didn’t chase him from food or water. He loved to be brushed and hugged. But one day he began to grow weak and could no longer get up from his naps without being helped, and toward the end we rigged a blanket for shade and called a ‘vet’ to ease his passing. One by one, all 32 jacks came by and touched him some place on his body, then went back to their hay. Shortly after the last jack paid his respects, Yaqui took a deep breath and died.” He was 50 years old, the vet said, the oldest equine he had ever seen. Had he helped a miner named Pegleg Pete find water? Maybe he had once led a lost pilgrim back to the trail. Or maybe he just lived in the Mojave Desert — for a long time, until he had to go.