Published October 31, 2011
PRESIDIO, Texas – Unofficially, the state of Texas celebrates donkeys and their historical and cultural significance in shaping the American West.
Officially? The policy on wild burros out here is shoot to kill.
Texas park rangers are trying to wipe out hundreds of free-roaming donkeys in Big Bend State Park, killing nearly 130 to date with .308-caliber bolt-action rifles on this side of the Rio Grande. But in the process, the shootings are stirring a whole new kind of cross-border controversy, pitting state officials against burro-lovers who believe the animal holds a special place in history and deserves protection.
The state's stance: wild donkeys wandering over from Mexico simply don't belong. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department considers an estimated 300 burros in Big Bend to be destructive intruders, hogging forage and lapping up precious water in the drought-starved mountains — thereby threatening the survival of hundreds of native species.
Outraged locals, however, claim there's only one animal the state really cares about — bighorn sheep.
"They say we're doing this just so four rich white guys can hunt bighorn sheep out here," said David Riskind, director of natural resources for the parks agency. "That's just not true."
Once extinct in Texas for decades, bighorns made a heralded homecoming to Big Bend last year when a herd of nearly four dozen was relocated to the 316,000-acre range. But even that's not big enough for what the state says are foreign burros and the native bighorns.
Skeptics suspect the state's stance is all a wink to wealthy and well-connected hunters. Coveted state permits to bag bighorns fetch upward of $100,000 at auction in Texas, and opponents like Margaret Farabee of the Wild Burro Protection League believe that's why the state wants to eliminate any threat to the sheep's survival so the bighorn hunters can one day return to Big Bend.
Riskind said it will take decades before the bighorn population is robust enough to possibly allow hunting in Big Bend, but that doesn't quiet the doubts of a growing campaign to save the burros — for a second time.
Among those trying to stop the shootings include a Wisconsin woman who's bombarded the state with open records requests; a former state park supervisor in Big Bend; and more than 94,000 supporters on Change.org, making it one of the website's most popular petitions ever.
But their biggest ally may be history. In 2007, a similar uproar caused the state to temporarily suspend its first foray into "lethal control" after park rangers killed 71 wild burros.
Luis Armenderiz, the former Big Bend supervisor who retired following the initial controversy, said the burros are no more destructive to the park than humans who put in bike trails.
"We are invading their ecosystem. They're not invading ours," Armenderiz said.
Shooting wild animals doesn't generally create much of a stir in Texas, where hunting is a celebrated pastime. A year ago, Gov. Rick Perry famously paused from a morning jog to take aim at a coyote. This past summer, state lawmakers made gunning down feral hogs from helicopters legal.
No one sticks up for the ugly, rooting, beastly feral hog. So why the burro backlash?
"They're charismatic," Riskind said.
Opponents say the reasons are cultural. Donkeys did the dirty work of hauling supplies during America's westward expansion in the 1800s, and here along the border, families owned burros like households today have dogs. When the peso was weak, Mexican families strapped American-bought microwaves to their burro's backs to haul across the Rio Grande.
Even at Big Bend National Park, right next door to the state-owned land, killing wild burros is prohibited by a 40-year-old federal ban that Congress said protects the "living symbols and pioneer spirit of the West."
Riskind is quick to call burros "historically significant" and said the state tells the animal's important legacy through its books and museums. But he said those creatures were domesticated donkeys — and times have changed.
Heightened border security has made walking a donkey across the Rio Grande nearly impossible, and Mexico's violent drug war has decimated small towns in northern states and sent families fleeing inward. Riskind said many of the wild burros in Big Bend today were simply abandoned by Mexican ranchers.
The donkey dust-up is playing out in an isolated, rugged region that looks like a stock Texas landscape in some old western shoot-'em-up. Residents proudly call it the Lone Star State's last frontier, but attitudes here lean more progressive than small-town rustic.
An hour up the road is Marfa, the arty desert oasis where Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant played a surprise show last month. In nearby Alpine, ranchers who drive into town to buy hay bales and horse feed drive past two yoga studios. Rachael Waller, who runs an equine rescue in Alpine, hands out "burro-friendly store" stickers to shop owners and said nearly every business in town is on board, including the local taxidermist.
Waller, who is the daughter of Robert Waller, author of "The Bridges of Madison County," has a 7-year-old burro named Penny on her 40-acre ranch.
"We like going to Big Bend and seeing all the wildlife. It's all supposed to be there," she said.
Riskind described "lethal control" as a reluctant but necessary measure of last resort. Park rangers don't actively hunt for burros, and pull the trigger only when they stumble upon a herd. Conservancy groups tried trapping the burros in 2007 after the state backed down to protesters, but spent months without wrangling one donkey from the impossibly rocky terrain.
For now, Riskind doesn't see the state giving into opposition again.
"I think it's safe to say we're not re-evaluating," he said.