Nevada burro gather proves old methods still work

Nov 13, 2009

Nevada burro gather proves old methods still work

The Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge lies in remote northwestern Nevada, a sprawling expanse of over half a million acres of high desert landscape. Flat-topped mesas rise precipitously off the sagebrush flats, and jagged rimrock punctuates the horizon. Over the past several weeks, a visitor to the Sheldon with a sharp set of eyes might have spied a lone figure ahorseback, vanishingly small in the vast landscape, herding before him a small bunch of burros across the sagebrush flat towards an almost equally invisible trap set in a steep gully. This would have been Mike O’Sullivan of Adel, OR, one of the few remaining contractors who still gather wild horses and burros from the back of a horse, as opposed to the cockpit of a helicopter. It may be that gathering horses and burros horseback lacks the speed and drama of a helicopter gather, but the old ways still get the job done, without the thumping rotors and whining engines, and may even have some advantages when facing an adversary as wily as the wild burro. This much, at least, is certain: in an age of mechanized horse gathers, O’Sullivan and the few modern-day mustangers like him represent a swiftly disappearing breed.

Over the past three weeks, O’Sullivan and his partner Luke Baumeister have been methodically gathering 80 head of burros off the Sheldon, primarily from a corridor of land along Highway 140 where many burros have been hit by vehicles. According to Paul Steblein, project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Sheldon/Hart National Wildlife Refuges, the gather was conducted not only to prevent further accidents on the highway, but also as a response to a recent environmental assessment which suggests that burro numbers were negatively impacting native plant and animal species on the refuge.

Because the Sheldon is under the refuge system, its mission, unlike the Bureau of Land Management’s, is exclusively to protect native plants and wildlife. Wild burros, however, are not native to northern Nevada. According to Steblein, they are most likely descended from burros brought west by European settlers. As a non-native species, it is not within the mission of the Wildlife Refuge to protect them, and the presence of horses and burros on the Sheldon is currently being reassessed in light of potential damage they are causing to native wildlife. Steblein indicates that the current interim objective for the burro population on the reserve is 90 animals, though maintaining numbers is difficult since "we don’t have as good a statistical technique for (counting) burros" as for horses. However, burros are conjectured to have an equally aggressive rate of reproduction as horses—20 percent a year—making routine gathers a requirement if appropriate numbers are to be maintained.

Talking to O’Sullivan, a person begins to get the impression that gathering burros is a good deal more of an art than a science, and possibly requires more bullheaded persistence—mixed with ample doses of patience and luck—than anything else.

"They’re not like horses," O’Sullivan explains. "There’s no rhyme or reason to what they do. Every bunch is different. Horses’ll stay together. If one horse leaves, the rest will all try and go that way. With burros, they don’t give a damn. It’s like people say, they’re like trying to gather quail. The only ones that’ll stay together are a jenny and her colt, and then maybe her yearling colt. Jacks, they’ll just take off. They don’t care about nothin’. They’re kind of a no pressure animal. You put too much pressure on them, and then they’ll really scatter on you."

But despite the difficulties associated with herding these independent-minded creatures, O’Sullivan’s gather proved a huge success. "It worked wonderfully," commented Steblein. "In the span of three to four weeks, we caught 80 burros, compared to 45 burros caught in about four months last November through February using baited corrals."

This may come as no surprise to O’Sullivan, who is well aware that the native canniness of burros makes them exceptionally hard to capture. "They’re hard to get in a trap," comments O’Sullivan. "If they see the trap, they won’t go in it. They’re a hard animal to catch. If they don’t want to go somewhere, they won’t go there."

More direct forms of persuasion, such as roping the burros, are not permitted. So contractors must use their wits and patience to pilot the burros cross country and into the corral. This can be slow going, as the burros exhibit far less inclination to be herded than their equine relations. Some burros, inevitably, will quit the bunch.

"We try to get one or two bunches together, to see if we can hold ’em, and drive ’em across the flat to our trap," says O’Sullivan. "We usually end up with about 50 percent of what we started with."

Importantly, U.S. tax payers do not end up paying extra for O’Sullivan’s traditional methods. Because he is paid per head gathered, regardless of time spent, taxpayers get their money’s worth.

The burros gathered off the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge will be taken to Peaceful Valley Donkey Rescue in Tehachapi, CA. From there, the burros may go to one of Peaceful Valley’s several locations throughout the U.S., which include facilities in Virginia and Pennsylvania, from which they will be adopted out. Says Mark Meyers, executive director of Peaceful Valley, "We have facilities all over the country. We try and send (burros) where people want them. On the East Coast, there is a little more interest than any place else, also in the Pacific Northwest. We take them to places where they are not as common."

Those interested in adopting a wild burro can view Peaceful Valley’s Web site at

Now that helicopter gathers have become the norm in most horse management areas, gathering mustangs and burros horseback is increasingly rare, except in cases where there is heavy forest cover, or, as in the case of the Sheldon, where helicopter gathers are not typically used for gathering burros. According to O’Sullivan, the preference for helicopters has made the traditional method of gathering from horseback something of a dying art. "There’s not too many people that do it," remarks O’Sullivan. "The helicopters have got it pretty much all tied up, and not too many people know how to do it any more." — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent