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Desert Companion

The Burro Whisperer


Photography by Brent Holmes

Death Valley park officials consider wild burros a scourge. To activists like Diana Chontos, the misunderstood creatures embody the soul of the West


It’s a breathtakingly cold January morning on this isolated ranch in the Eastern Sierra. The burros are moving slowly in the early light, exhaling steam in the 27-degree air. This is where Diana Chontos lives alone with 180 burros. The ranch is Wild Burro Rescue, a last outpost for burros removed from nearby Death Valley National Park.

Alpenglow on the freshly fallen mountain snow turns the jagged peaks pink, but Chontos has little time to stand and marvel at the sunrise; she’s wondering if the water troughs will be frozen when she steps outside. If they are, this means extra work on top of distributing grain, cleaning stalls, providing special care to elderly burros, and bringing in firewood before dark so that she and her 11 dogs can stay warm through the windy, bitterly cold night.

Mercifully, the water isn’t frozen. The burros perk up at the sight of her, gathering together and letting out low sounds, like a murmuring crowd. Behind them, the Inyo Mountains glow, marking the western boundary of Death Valley National Park, the 3.4 million-acre expanse of desert they once called home.

How Chontos and the burros ended up together on the ranch in Olancha is a story hundreds of years in the making.

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Chontos’ part began in 1985 in Washington state, where she was living when she found out about a burro roundup taking place in Death Valley. The park service had long seen the animals as an invasive species, and they were taking another stab at extinguishing them for good. She and her then husband adopted two, both of whom turned out to be pregnant.

“Seven months later I had two baby burros,” she says, smiling. “Happiest time of my life. And then I found out two years later that Death Valley had started shooting them.”

Incensed, she and her husband quit their careers and decided to take their burros on a walk — a 500-mile walk from Mt. St. Helens in Washington to Mt. Lassen in northern California.

“We got so tired of people saying, ‘What are burros good for? Why do you want burros?’” she says. “We decided to just take the burros out and show them.”

They traveled all summer in a sort of educational road show. Each day they’d educate people on trails and in towns, and each night, the burros would lay down beside their sleeping bags.

“A lot of times when I didn’t even trust myself, I’d let the donkeys go and say, ‘You pick the trail. I’ll follow you,” Chontos remembers. “And they always would.”

That journey led her to a wild horse rescue in Shingletown, California, where she had learned of 14 recently rounded up burros that the sanctuary couldn’t take in. Over a campfire and a bottle of Jim Beam, she and the sanctuary owner struck a deal: The burros were hers to care for.

“I wasn’t going to walk away and have that on my head for the rest of my life,” Chontos says. “So I went home (to Washington) and I founded Wild Burro Rescue to offer Death Valley an alternative to killing.”

Chontos is a Pacific Northwesterner at heart, but she established Wild Burro Rescue in Olancha, California, just outside of Death Valley National Park, to give the burros a chance to live as close to their home as possible. Originally from North Africa, the burros thrive in the harsh environment, which is brutally hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. For humans, it’s not so easy.

“I’d much rather live in the rainforest of Washington state,” Chontos says. “Rain there goes into the ground. Rain here takes the mountain away. But it’s the burros’ country, so I live here for them.”

Since starting Wild Burro Rescue in 1991, Chontos has taken in hundreds of burros from Death Valley, many of which might have otherwise died. She remains at the windswept ranch in Olancha, ready to take in more should the need arise.

The good, the bad, and the burros

The need may arise soon. Not everyone loves burros like Chontos does. In December of 2017, the first rumblings of a burro roundup began with a Facebook post from the park service. Accompanied by images of a desert spring, hoofprints in the dirt and a herd of burros standing resolute among sagebrush, it read, “Feral burros, which are not native, cause significant damage to these precious resources.” The social media post included a request that visitors to Death Valley report the location of burros to the park service, for the purposes of “resource protection.” In other words, they were looking to get rid of the burros.


Desert Survivors - When miners in the 19th-century Death Valley set their burros loose, they didn't nmecessarily expect them to survive. In fact, the burros flourished. Photo by Brent Holmes.

Abby Wines, management assistant for Death Valley National Park, says the park service is getting ready to conduct the first burro roundup since 2005.

“Death Valley’s goal is a zero burro and horse population in the park,” she explains. “Burros are not native, and the national park service has direction that we are supposed to preserve the natural environment of the landscape. Burros damage springs and compete with desert bighorn sheep for both food and water.”

It would be more fitting to say that burros appear to compete for food and water because few major studies on burros have been carried out in the United States since a 1974 review by the California Department of Fish and Game, which describes “spring and waterhole disturbance, and competition with native wildlife for food, water and space.” The report suggests that burros are one threat among many, including respiratory diseases, parasites, drought — and humans: “mining activities, usurpation or occupation of water sources, highway construction, fencing and other barriers, and poaching.” Another 2008 literature review, conducted by UNLV Life Sciences Assistant Professor Scott Abella, cited studies between 1972 and 1988 that noted burros’ grazing impact on native grasses and competition with desert tortoises.

But it’s not so straightforward. Research conducted by Erick Lundgren in 2015 offers a different picture. Then a master’s student in biology at Arizona State University, Lundgren wondered whether burros might benefit the environment by increasing access to water for other species. He placed trail cameras on wells dug by wild burros in the Sonoran Desert, and found that more than 40 native species use the wells. The footage, which can be found on YouTube, shows burros digging wells. As the video continues, we see javelinas, bighorn sheep, cattle, coyotes, and mule deer drinking from the wells, occasionally alongside the burros. Lundgren also contributed to an October 2017 article in the journal Ecography, “Introduced Megafauna Are Rewilding the Anthropocene.” Lundgren, now a Ph.D. student in ecology at the University of Technology Sydney, says his research doesn’t answer whether wild burros are, on the whole, good or bad for Death Valley. But it certainly complicates the conversation, and suggests that perhaps the reigning paradigm of park wildlife management — keep everything as “natural” as possible — isn’t very realistic or useful.

“The simplistic good/bad distinction when it comes to talking about native species and introduced species is starting to fall apart,” he says. “I think the next generation of land management professionals and ecologists will start to question these paradigms.” He adds: “It would be nice to see if we could create a new mandate that allows nature to change and evolve as it does. It seems much of our effort is to resist that change. The very least Death Valley could do is study burros.”

The survivors who flourished

To understand how Death Valley arrived at its latest attempt to remove the burro, you must go back to a time before the park was even a park. Burros arrived in Death Valley in the mid-19th century, brought there by white settlers determined to extract gold from the unforgiving mountains, even if it meant driving out the Timbisha Shoshone natives who had been there since 900 A.D. The settlers eventually used mammoth burros — a giant breed of burro — and draft horses to create the iconic Twenty Mule Teams often associated with the early days of borax mining in Death Valley. After the burros had served their purpose, the miners and settlers let them go, not giving any thought about whether the animals would survive or perish.

The burros did more than survive. They flourished — or at least they did until 1933, when Death Valley became a national monument. The burro roundups began in 1938 and continued periodically until 2005. Roundups were conducted by setting water and food traps and later by corralling them via helicopter. Roundups included relocation to government auction sites, attempts at adoption, and, in many cases, killing. According to a 1985 Los Angeles Times article, federal officials acknowledged that as many as 700 burros may have been unintentionally killed during roundups at the time, with some shipped to a slaughterhouse in Oregon. Up through the early 1990s, the park service occasionally shot burros as part of its management plan.

According to Chontos, this often involved deliberately shooting pregnant female burros (called “jennies”) in the stomach. “It takes hours to die if you gut shoot them,” she says.

“None of them have been killed since 1993 due to public outcry,” Wines points out, describing the phases of the current management plan. Wines says the park service is currently involved in phase two of that plan, which involves working with nonprofit organizations that will help with the roundup process.

Despite the fact that Wild Burro Rescue would offer the remaining Death Valley burros a chance to live in the same environment they’ve called home since the 19th century, the park service has not contacted Diana Chontos for assistance with the current roundup. Instead, they plan to work with Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue, a nonprofit based in Texas. The reason for this, Wines says, is money or, rather, the park service’s lack of it. “Peaceful Valley is able to fund this one on their own,” says Wines.

Peaceful Valley plans to use the water trapping method to capture all of the wild burros in Death Valley (a number estimated at 600 to 4,000, depending on who you talk to). Burros will then be domesticated and offered for adoption all over the country, from Connecticut to Washington. Any burros that can’t be domesticated will live out their lives in sanctuaries in Texas or Louisiana. The initial roundup was set for March through May of this year, before scorching summertime temperatures. Assuming funding is available, subsequent roundups will continue until the park’s zero-burro policy is met.

Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue has been involved in burro roundups across the country for over 20 years, but this is their first foray into Death Valley.

“This isn’t a government project,” says Mark Meyers, executive director of Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue. “This is a donkey rescue project. We put the safety of the burros first. We don’t want to go out and cowboy around.”

If phase one is the government roundup, and phase two involves help from nonprofit rescue groups, what’s phase three? “Direct reduction” — government-speak for shooting the burros — an action which the park service is still legally able to take.

“If it wasn’t for us, they would shoot them,” Meyers says. “That’s the only way they can meet the letter of the law. They have no money, they have a skeleton crew.”

‘We owe it to them’

Part of the burros’ quandary — they survived and flourished, only to be chased out, rounded up, or shot — is an image problem. People don’t view burros the way they view wild horses, even though both are non-native equines.

“Horses are beautiful and magnificent, and the wind blows in their tails and manes,” Chontos says. “Burros just stand there and look at you with great big brown eyes. I don’t know, it’s just some romantic Western thing, the wild horses.”

She’s right. There is something to be said for the image of a mustang running wild in the Western landscape. But there’s also something to be said for a burro, all stocky limbs and sturdy spirit, plodding along and carrying settlers across Death Valley, methodically climbing steep mountainsides to help build railroads and carry silver from mines.

“Without the burro, there would be no westward expansion,” Meyers says. “They’ve lost their place in society, and we owe it to them to treat them with respect.”

To Chontos, the burros are more than just the patient, slow creatures who carried settlers across the unforgiving desert.

Looking back on that long walk from Mt. St. Helens to Mt. Lassen, and to the burro she played with on her mother’s farm as a child, she says, “They were my companions.”

When the park service calls burros non-native, it’s hard not to think of another non-native being: the white settler making his way across the West, seeking to drive out native people, to tame the wild land, to build resorts, raise livestock, unearth minerals, and test military weapons. In Death Valley’s Cottonwood Range, it’s not uncommon to see cows grazing among the Joshua trees, with the blessing of the park service. The next valley over, you can expect to be buzzed by F-18 fighter jets while soaking in the Saline Valley hot springs, all within park boundaries. In the Panamint Mountains, an active gold mine sprays the cliffs with cyanide, mere miles from the border of the park. And yet the burro is characterized as a threat to Death Valley’s ecology.

For Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue and Wild Burro Rescue, going along with the park’s zero-burro policy is the only way to save the animals, even if that means driving them from somewhere they never asked to be brought to in the first place.

“Nobody wants to shoot an innocent animal,” Meyers says. “This isn’t hunting. This is shooting an animal that will stand there and stare at you. That’s the threat that hangs over your head, but as long as I’m here, it won’t come to that. They’d have to shoot me, too.”

“They’re very much like elephants,” Chontos says. “Their whole social structure is like elephants. They celebrate birth, they mourn death. They can even die when their best friend dies. And they love people. The biggest downfall of burros is that they love people.”

If you drive through Death Valley, to the place where the sprawling desert floor meets the endless blue wall of the Eastern Sierra mountains, you’ll find an unmarked dirt road beside a gas station in Olancha. And if you take that road — the kind of rambling, rock-strewn road that threatens to rip out the belly of your car — you’ll find yourself at Chontos’ ranch, among nearly 200 burros who once ran free in Death Valley. As you consider their trumpeting brays, their sturdy forms, the thought that struck Chontos decades ago may strike you, too: The spirit of Death Valley doesn’t just exist in an abandoned mine shaft or in the ruins of a boomtown from the Gold Rush; it lives just as much in the footprints, the comically long ears, the gentle eyes of the burro

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