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Cougars help control wild burro harm to park wetlands

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Burro humor

About 200 years ago, wild donkeys – also called burros – moved into Death Valley National Park along the California-Nevada border.

These animals are native to northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. They were brought to Mexico because they were good at carrying gear for humans, and do well in desert regions.

Some of them ran away, or were released, and their population in Death Valley has grown. Since they are not native to the park, they can damage plants and compete with native species like bighorn sheep and the desert tortoise for the little bit of food that grows in the desert.

A recent study found that mountain lions will kill and eat burros, which can grow up to 500 pounds. Where there are more mountain lions, burros have less of an effect on the environment because they are more cautious, don’t hang out in one place as long, and are more likely to visit watering holes in the day when the risk of being ambushed by a lion is lower, researchers found.

In wetlands where lions were active, burros would only visit about 40 minutes a day when the temperature was more than 95 degrees. In comparison, in places with no lions the burros would hang out up to 5.5 hours a day.

“The differences between wetlands with and without mountain lion predation are remarkable, and are even visible from satellite imagery,” said Erick Lundgren, postdoctoral researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Sites without lions have lots of trails, very few plants and huge areas of trampled bare ground.

“These are the areas land managers and conservationists are concerned about and use to argue for the wholesale removal of wild donkeys,” Lundgren said. “However, if you go just a few kilometers away to wetlands where mountain lions are hunting donkeys, wetlands are lush with untouched vegetation, have only one or two donkey trails, and limited trampling.”

So to protect the park, more lions to eat or scare off burros may be a good thing, the researchers said. This is important since the burro population can grow about 20% a year and they can live to 25 years old.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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