The Bureau of Land Management wants to remove and adopt out more than 500 wild burros that roam the desert near Lake Mead, nearly eliminating the wild herd.
The bureau says the feral donkeys are stripping the land of vegetation and heading toward a die-off if left unchecked. If the federal plan is approved, the government would also temporarily sterilize additional burros and conduct more roundups over 10 years to maintain a small, stable population.
When the gather might happen is unclear. It could be years on the horizon or as early as this fall if the continuing drought dries up enough plants and grass to force starvation conditions.
The gather would also remove a small herd of wild horses over the same area.
The BLM conservatively estimates 554 burros and 36 horses inhabit the Lake Mead Complex, a 274,000-acre expanse the bureau manages with the National Park Service. The BLM says the area can support up to 98 burros and no horses.
In an 86-page draft environmental assessment released in April, the BLM says food and water sources aren’t sustainable under the current demands of the animals, which are hardy, reproduce exponentially and have few predators.
Based on birth rates, a herd can grow by 15% to 25% annually. The Lake Mead burros already comprise one of the biggest herds in the state.
Although Lake Mead is the animals’ main water source, augmented by temporary springs, the bureau can’t consider the reservoir when setting management levels because the park service is not tasked with burro management, said Tabitha Romero, a wild horse and burro specialist at the BLM’s Las Vegas office.
“That’s what we see across the state, is that water is our limiting factor,” Romero said.
The biggest natural enemies of the burros are starvation and dehydration. Vegetation along the lake’s shores is picked over for a radius of one to two miles, Romero said.
“While some members of the public have advocated ‘letting nature take its course,’ allowing horses and burros to die of dehydration and starvation would be inhumane treatment and would be contrary to the (Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act), which mandates removal of excess wild horses and burros,” the environmental assessment says.
The initial gather would bring the population down to 22 burros in the rugged Gold Butte area east of the reservoir’s central Overton arm, where most of the animals concentrate. The bureau says the desert ecosystem can’t support the burro or horse population elsewhere in the complex, which includes the Muddy Mountains area near Lake Mead’s northwest shores and the El Dorado Mountains to the south, hugging the Colorado River roughly between the ghost town of Nelson and Searchlight.
As of March 2020, the BLM managed about 4,500 burros scattered over about two dozen herd areas in Nevada. Only about 800 can live sustainably in the state, officials say.
The government last gathered animals in the Lake Mead Complex in 2007, when it removed 149 burros and largely cleared out the population near Searchlight. Across the river, near Bullhead City, Arizona, the BLM is removing up to 500 burros, its fifth roundup in northwestern Arizona since 2017.
If the Lake Mead roundup is approved, the bureau would use traps baited with food or water and helicopters to drive the animals into pens. Some females would be given an injection of a contraceptive before being returned to the range.
Burro challenges in the Lake Mead area go back decades.
The National Park Service proposed a burro management plan in 1994 for the 1.5-million acre Lake Mead Recreational Area in cooperation with the BLM. The park service first documented controlling burros within Lake Mead park boundaries in 1979.
The 1994 plan sought to “establish burro free areas” within the park, calling the animals “an exotic species” that were “prospering at the expense of Lake Mead NRA’s native fauna and biotic communities.”
Advocates for wild burros seek the same protections for donkeys as for mustangs to live free on the range. As with horses, humans have a deep relationship with burros.
The donkey is part and parcel with Nevada’s mining heritage, hauling supplies to and within camps, ferrying ore through tight mine shafts and breeding with horses to produce the mules that pulled wagons. They escaped their keepers or were released when no longer needed. They turned feral but stayed in the vicinity.
In 2017, the BLM rounded up more than 100 burros from the Pahrump area b