In May of this year, an unidentified man went out for a hike at Saline Valley Dunes, a desolate area that cannot be accessed without four-wheel drive in the California portion of the Death Valley National Park. Four days after he had set out, rangers received word that his truck had been parked for several days, seemingly abandoned. After an investigation and contacting the man’s family, it was determined that he had indeed gone missing.
A week after his disappearance, the park rangers discovered the man approximately five miles from where his truck had been left. While hiking, he had become disoriented and unable to locate his vehicle, followed a group of wild burros to water where he stayed until his rescue.
Ability to Survive
The unforgiving desert landscape is a familiar one to burros. Since the early 1800s, they have accompanied explorers and pioneers on their treks throughout the West, surviving even when the harsh conditions claimed the lives of their human “owners.” By the Gold Rush years, burros were used primarily in the Southwest as pack animals for prospectors. They worked tirelessly to carry supplies, ore, water and machinery to mining camps, and became indispensable to the workers. At the end of the mining boom many of them escaped or were turned loose, and with their innate ability to survive under the harshest conditions, wild herds eventually formed and flourished.
Burros, like their close relative the African wild ass, are highly adapted to arid, desert environments. They can tolerate a water loss as much as 30 percent of their body weight, and replenish it in only five minutes drinking. In contrast, humans require medical attention if 10 percent of body weight is lost to dehydration and require a full day of intermittent drinking to replenish this loss.
It is thanks to the Death Valley wild burros’ ability to thrive in this unforgiving environment that the hiker was able to leave Death Valley National Park that day with only a second- degree sunburn and recoverable physical effects of dehydration.
Burros in Crisis
In the U.S., these amazing animals are supposed to be protected by federal law, but they are threatened by government policies that have reduced their numbers to the point of genetic crisis.
Less than 8,500 burros are estimated to remain on public lands managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Forest Service in the United Sates. Historically, these agencies have managed burros through cruel helicopter roundups that have removed thousands of them from the range, and thus populations have been reduced to tiny, fragmented herds, causing inbreeding. Many burro populations have only a 20 percent genetic variability factor compared to a healthy genetic variability of 70 percent.
In order to uphold the letter and the spirit of the Wild Free Roaming Burros Act of 1971 and protect wild burros as “natural components” of the lands on which they are found, the BLM must increase Allowable Management Levels (the arbitrary number that the BLM assigns to how many wild horses or burros can live in an area) for wild burro populations.
To learn more about America’s amazing wild burros and what you can do to protect them, please check out the Platero Project, here.
The Platero Project, funded by an anonymous donor dedicated to elevating the status of burros, is managed by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and dedicated to preserving and protecting these icons of the West by keeping them wild and free.