Who’s Shooting Arizona’s Wild Burros?

February 28, 2014

(Photo by Peter O'Dowd-KJZZ)
The BLM's Steve Bird at the scene of recent wild burro shooting.
(Photo by Peter O'Dowd-KJZZ)
A wild burro walks the streets of Oatman, Ariz.
(Photo courtesy of Jeff Ficker)
Oatman resident Jim Quinn in the hills where gold mines were once active.
(Photo courtesy of Jeff Ficker)
The BLM says about 3,600 wild burros live in Arizona.

Federal investigators in Arizona have a mystery on their hands. Since 2009, they have counted 18 unsolved shootings in the desert outside of Phoenix.

But let’s get something straight here. We are talking about donkeys, wild burros protected under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. In late January, two more from the Lake Pleasant herd were found dead among the desert scrub and beavertail cactus. 

“We consider that a murder scene,” said the Bureau of Land Management’s Steve Bird.

Bird stood about 35 miles northwest of Phoenix, where a dirt road stops at a gate. From evidence at the scene, Bird could tell the shooter was well-trained.

“One bullet hole per animal right set in the lungs,” he said. “It was a good shot.”

Fresh but faint tire tracks were found at the scene. That led investigators to believe the shooter pulled the trigger from inside a vehicle, Bird said.

These burros descend from pack animals that gold miners abandoned more than a century ago. Today, the feral herd of about 400 drinks from Lake Pleasant in the morning and then scrambles back into the hills to spend the afternoon.

In 2012, five burros were killed in one day, according to BLM records. Eleven were shot in a single barrage back in 2009. Bill Clinton was president the last time anyone got caught. In that case, it was a target-shooting doctor from Phoenix.

The BLM believes the shootings are unrelated, but there are similarities. In no case did the shooters harvest the animals for food.

“This is something that you just let die out here,” Bird said. “That's just not right.” 

The agency believes the motive is probably little more than target shooting, but finding good evidence in the desert, sometimes days after the shooting, has proven difficult, according to Rem Hawes, who is the BLM’s Hassayampa Field Manager.

“We’re out in a fairly wild place where nature does its thing, including wind and rain. The crime scene here is not a simple one,” Hawes said.

About 3,600 wild burros live in Arizona. In Oatman, a town built on mining along Route 66 near Kingman, burros have gotten accustomed to humans. On any given day, the burros come down from the mountains and stick their noses into the outstretched hands of tourists. On a recent afternoon, gun-fighting actors showed visitors how to nudge the stubborn animals from the road so the show could begin. (The solution was splashing water in a burro's face.)

“It doesn't even move,” said resident Jim Quinn, who rents his home to tourists. “It just stands there and looks at you, and then it's like a stationary target.” 

It is no surprise to Quinn that people are shooting the animals near Phoenix. They do it up here too, he said. Maybe a landowner wants revenge because a burro has trampled a fence or gotten into his garbage.

 “Once you're out there, there are no witnesses. You get people taking potshots. Sad to say, but it's one of the realities here in the Wild West," said Quinn.

The federal law, passed in the 1970s, is supposed to protect the burros as icons of the American West. Killing one is punishable by up to a year in prison and thousands of dollars in fines, but the BLM manages 13-million acres in Arizona, and it has only a handful of agents to investigate the crimes. If the public does not report shootings, the BLM usually will not know a crime has occurred, an official said.

In the rugged mountains around Oatman, Quinn explained why the animals matter to Arizona. He pointed to the hills to show off the remnants of so many gold mines. 

“The burros was like the middle-class blue-collar of labor of America. Without the burros a lot of things couldn't have gotten done,” Quinn said.