We’d barely entered the park on Iron Mountain Road when we saw about 10 or 12 burros poking around cars parked on the shoulder, and people, some inside their cars, some walking around. What were they doing? We pulled over and watched. The burros were quite obviously requesting food in no uncertain burro-body language, some thrusting their snouts right into the car windows as if to see and sniff for themselves. And many of the people were digging around in their car’s food supply and giving the burros whatever they came up with. In one case this was a head of lettuce, which is probably ok. But several others were getting chitos and chips – not the most nutritious food for people or burros. We were impressed with how gentle these fairly large, well-muscled, hooved creatures were, but had no desire to "feed" them, even if we would have had something in the car with which to do so. Something about the whole scene was faintly disturbing. At the other side of the park, on Wildlife Loop Road, we ran into a replay of this scene, not just on the shoulder, but extending into a large, open field. Again, we stopped, watched, and took photos. The burros looked healthy with shiny coats, and some of the females were quite obviously pregnant.
I was curious about this, so later looked for more specifics in Tatanka magazine, given to us at the entrance station. A "Please don’t FEED US" column announced that feeding any of the park’s wildlife is strictly prohibited. But these burros didn’t seem very wild, and no one was around to enforce this prohibition. I recalled a few miles before the park entrance a store was advertising "burro food". Burro food? I determined to ask a ranger. At the wildlife station, the ranger on duty informed me that the burros aren’t indigenous to the area, but were introduced in the 1920’s by an entrepreneur who used them to carry tourists up Mt. Harney. When his venture failed in the 1930’s, he let the burros loose. Currently there are two small herds, about 15-20 burros in each. Park policy is not to feed them, but "if you must, give them something healthy, like carrots, apples, lettuce, or other raw vegetables." Although the burros behave in an extraordinarily gentle manner, considering their size, they do occasionally kick with their hind legs, and sometimes will nip a tourist. The herds are kept within manageable size by selling some every year during the bison auction.
According to the American Donkey and Mule Society, ass is the correct term for the animals we more often call donkeys or burros. Ass comes from the Latin asinus, not from the old English arse, a crude term for the human rear end. Male donkeys are called jacks, females jennets. The Western U.S. tends to call asses burros, from Spanish, whereas the East calls them donkeys. Mules are the sterile hybrids that result from breeding a jack to a female horse. The less common hinny, also sterile, is produced by the breeding of a male horse to a jennet.
Christopher Columbus had four jacks and two jennies brought to the New World 3 years after he first landed on its shores. They soon multiplied and also were used to produce mules, which along with burros were used extensively out West for mining. As mining ventures and other projects failed, the animals were often let loose and wild herds grew.
In 1971, the The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act was passed to prevent abuse and attempt some management of these roaming herds in the ever-increasingly populated and shrinking West. At the time of passage of this law, herds of wild horses and burros were estimated at 17,000; by 1993 their census was up to 46,500. Excess animals are removed from the herds and adopted out privately. Because of horse and burro fertility levels and subsequent increases in their populations, the Bureau of Land Management, on whose lands they mostly roam, is conducting studies on temporary anti-fertility methods for the herds.