Wild Burros: Helpful or Harmful?

They may be cute … but are wild burros actually helpful or harmful? Dr. Erick Lundgren who is an ecologist with a lot of research concerning wild burros, horses, and other introduced megafauna discusses the topic of wild burros (which are also called wild donkeys). He addresses perspectives that might encourage you to look at these animals a little differently when you come across them riding in Arizona, California or Nevada.

His research can be found at: https://ejlundgren.github.io/


Dirty Freehub – Kira 0:37
Eric, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Erick Lundgren 0:41
Thanks for having me on, Kyra.

That’s right here. They’re actually introduced in the United States. They’ve also been introduced elsewhere, like Australia and South America. These are descendants of animals used by miners who worked in these remote landscapes. And then when either the mines closed or diesel engines became available, they let the burros go or the wild donkeys. But what’s really interesting about them, which is why I started studying them, is that animals like donkeys, what we call equines, which include horses, evolved in North America and have were present in North America for about 35 million years until just 12,000 years ago, when these animals disappear as humans first arrive in North America, which is quite interesting and suggests that actually wild donkeys, while they might be not native, actually are very similar to animals that used to be present in these landscapes.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 1:40
Can you see them around these places pretty commonly Then?

Dr. Erick Lundgren 1:44
Depends on where you are. They used to be quite well distributed, but many populations have been removed by the government or were killed before they received protections in the 1970s. But in western Arizona and eastern California, you see quite a few. And then there are populations up in Nevada as well.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 2:01
So there’s actually brings up an interesting topic because they have no predators or disease, from what I understood. Is this actually harmful?

Dr. Erick Lundgren 2:10
Well, that’s a great question, Kara, and that reflects what many scientists have thought about wild burros. been widely claimed that they don’t have any natural predators, but that actually that claim is actually hard to trace because there’s actually a good deal of evidence that they do, as do wild horses. Mountain lions are big fans of wild burros. And I was lucky enough to do some research in Death Valley National Park that found that wild burros are a major part of the diet of mountain lions. wild burros are big animals,maybe the biggest animal we have in a lot of these arid landscapes. And because they’re so big, they can trample and eat a lot and have really strong effects like you might see in Africa, where big animals did not go extinct in prehistory. But these effects are really modified by whether there are mountain lions around. So if you go to a site where there are no mountain lions, you’ll see extensive trampling, lots of trails. But if you just go a little ways away to where there are mountain lions, you’ll see lush vegetation, lots of carcasses where mountain lions have killed wild donkeys. And this reflects that wild donkeys just like people or anything else, or respond dynamically, cognitively to a threat. So they’re more wary in places where there’s lots of mountain lions.

One of the major aspects of this is that we don’t treat mountain lions or other predators very well in Arizona. We hunt mountain lions recreationally. I don’t. But you’re allowed to. And mountain lions are killed to protect livestock at alarming rates. They’re also killed to protect bighorn sheep, which is another thing that mountain lions like to eat. so what this research suggests is that instead of demonizing wild burros for having strong impacts, we might be better off by increasing our protections from mountain lions and other predators.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 4:03
Yeah, it seems like there’s kind of a balance between the two.

Dr. Erick Lundgren 4:08
Yeah, it’s it suggests that we have these notions that native communities are best. They work somehow in this kind of optimal way. But these notions are actually more of a normative, a cultural preference for something we consider pure, you know, which is not actually scientifically quantifiable. And it looks like these novel systems, these feral systems where you have wild burros, wild donkeys descended from pack animals, now learning these landscapes and being hunted by mountain lions can function quite well if we let them.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 4:43
Is there any damage that has been caused with the wild bird population maybe before or after having predators? Are they harmful at all?

Dr. Erick Lundgren 4:52
Harm is a really difficult concept in ecology. Unfortunately, people use it very casually. But what’s interesting about harm is that it really is a construction of what we think should be. So if you look at the effects of wild donkeys, you actually see that those effects are the same as native zebra or similar to what elephants do knocking down trees and so on. When elephants or zebra do it, we think these effects are good and part of how they maintain diverse open habitats in Africa. But when wild donkeys do the same thing, we consider it bad. this has been shown now in many, many taxa that we actually can’t tell what organisms are native or introduced based on their actual effects.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 5:33
Why do you think it is that something like a zebra or an elephant? It has this maybe more of a positive association, but then the wild burro gets a little bit of a different rep.

Dr. Erick Lundgren 5:44
It’s about how we describe it and conservationists in general, don’t consider wild burros to belong. And because they don’t belong, then their effects are bad. I don’t think it’s too difficult to realize that this is not a science artifact. This is a ethical, a preference one that hopefully we can, as a Democratic public, can actually debate with transparent and rigor, opposed to just accepting claims by so-called experts that wild burros are intrinsically bad. What’s interesting about wild burros and their effects is actually while people describe their effects as harmful, I don’t know of a single story of any endangered species being negatively affected by wild burros. But what is clear is that previous removals and eradication of wild burros have actually led to the extinction of native species. They they eradicated wild burros from a national wildlife refuge in Nevada. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge to protect the wetlands there from the donkey disturbance. And what happened is the wetlands filled in with cattails and phragmites and actually lost their surface water and the endangered endemic fish that those wetlands were protected or for went extinct in a number of those springs,

Dirty Freehub – Kira 6:57

Dr. Erick Lundgren 6:58
That didn’t change any policies. But what managers do now is they go and manually remove vegetation to do exactly what the wild donkeys were doing for free.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 7:07
Do you find that this happens with other populations, too?

Dr. Erick Lundgren 7:10
Yeah. So wild Burros and Arizona. I did some research on this that was published a couple of years ago. if you go into a lot of these deserts, stream systems where there might be water in the winter, but the water dries up in the summer, you’ll find that wild burros dig wells up to two meters in depth And these wells get used by every animal imaginable. And in some places, they become germination nurseries for cottonwoods and willows, which suggests that the sort of myopic lens we have used to study these and other introduced species where everything they do is bad. And what does ignore things that are really hard to frame is bad is actually doing a real disservice to how we understand the world.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 7:53
That’s quite fascinating.

Dr. Erick Lundgren 7:54
Thank you. I think it’s fascinating, too.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 7:56
Yeah. I’m really glad to have you on here. because you have such an interesting research in this field, is there a place that people can follow along with you or some of the projects you’re working on?

Dr. Erick Lundgren 8:08
Yeah. Kara, that’s really nice of you. It would be really wonderful. People, you know, read some of these articles or reached out and chatted and, you know, people, especially people that are spending time out in the wilderness are often seeing things firsthand that are fascinating to people like me. So I have a website. It’s kind of an ugly URL. It’s E.J. Lundgren Blue and green dot GitHub dot IO.

Dirty Freehub – Kira 8:33
Thank you. I appreciate it.

Dr. Erick Lundgren 8:35
Thanks so much, Kira. It’s great talking to you.

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