BIG BEND RANCH STATE PARK - There’s a battle over wild burros in far West Texas. To some they're beloved animals. But the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department says the burros are a big problem.
Employees are shooting the animals at Big Bend Ranch State Park. The killings sparked a backlash from burro defenders.
“They’re a symbol and a part of this borderland culture,” said Zachary Zniewsky, who owns five burros. “They were used for anything you can imagine, from mining to ranching to farming, for hundreds of years in this country.”
Zniewsky lives in the tiny town of Marathon in the Big Bend region with his burros, including Lightening, a dark brown burro, who at age 56, is too slow to live up to his name.
As he stroked the neck of a young grey burro named Piper, Zniewsky said, “She doesn’t like the idea of her cousins down the river being killed.”
The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is targeting the wild burros along the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch Park. The animals are descendants of donkeys that escaped or were set free in the region.
“Really, burros are not unlike the other exotic and feral species that we find in parks across the state, that we try to control those and manage those numbers best we can,” said Brent Leisure with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Burros have a long history in the region, but they are not considered native by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Authorities say they're a destructive exotic species that must be eradicated.
“Several years ago we had to resort to lethal means for control because they do have a negative impact on the resources there, those indigenous species that we’re dedicated and committed to managing," Leisure said.
Nobody knows exactly how many of the elusive burros live at the 300,000-acre state park. Estimates range from 100 to as many as 300. Park officials say they compete with native animals for food and water. Since it’s too difficult and costly to catch and relocate the burros, employees shoot the animals.
Burro defenders took their fight to save the animals to the state capitol in Austin earlier this month.
“Could you really shoot one of these? What would Jesus think?” asked Marjorie Farabee, of Plantersville.
She founded the Burro Protection League and led a small procession of people riding burros to the state capitol building to deliver a petition to the governor’s office.
“We’re bringing 100,000 signatures today to show we have not just our community, but all over the world and all over the state of Texas are against this,” said Rachael Waller Rondeaux, a burro owner who traveled from Alpine to Austin with her young daughter.
“It’s really horrible what they’re doing at the park", said nine-year-old Cheyenne Rondeaux.
Burro defenders suspect an effort to build up the big horn sheep population to benefit hunters is behind the killings. A Texas Parks and Wildlife spokesman said sheep hunting won’t be allowed at the park in “the foreseeable future.”
Chris Gill owns the Circle Ranch in the Sierra Diable region of far West Texas and wrote a blog about the controversial killings that included documents from an internal affairs investigation into the practice in 2007.
The investigators found no wrongdoing but, according to the documents, two park employees who were questioned said, “The burros were killed because they compete with native wildlife species and their existence on Big Bend Ranch State Park conflicts with a pending program aimed at reintroducing desert big horn sheep into the park.”
That restoration program is now a reality.
Since 2010, about 150 big horn sheep have been released in the state park. A spokesman with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said the sheep are among the native animals the state wants to protect, but not the sole reason for the burro killings.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department spokesman Tom Harvey says the state is open to non-lethal methods of controlling the burro population, and is considering proposal by the Humane Society to capture and relocate the burros.
Texas halted burro killings for two years from 2008-2010 to give rescue organizations the chance to round up the burros.
“None of the efforts from other groups have been successful,” said Brent Leisure of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Even so, defenders vow to continue the fight to save the burros in Big Bend Ranch Park.