The word “burro” is derived from the Spanish word “borrico,” meaning donkey. Burro refers to a small donkey, often used as a pack animal.
Burros were first seen in the Arizona territory in 1679, when Jesuit priest Padre Eusebion Kino brought them to the Spanish mission at San Xavier de Bac in southern Arizona.
The existence of burros as free-roaming animals in the hills and mountains of the lower Colorado River Valley came after gold was discovered at Gila City in 1858. Prospectors poured into the area from California and Sonora, Mexico bringing with them sturdy pack burros.
In the barren, nearly waterless hills, burros adapted well and became indispensable to prospectors. Burros were used as pack animals by the prospectors. They worked in the mines hauling ore and carried supplies, water and even machinery into desolate mining camps. The lone prospector and his trusty pack burro became a legendary symbol of the old west.
The mining boom in the lower Colorado River Valley lasted from 1858 to 1880, although some larger mines continued into the 1920s and 1930s. When the ore played out, the mines were shut down, and the mining camps were abandoned, becoming ghost towns. The burros, either having wandered off, or being turned loose, were left to fend for themselves in the harsh arid environment. Having evolved in the deserts of North Africa, the burro flourished in the southwest.
As early as the 1920s, concerns began mounting about the number of wild burros roaming regions of Arizona. Control measures were put in place to contain the rapidly increasing number of animals. These control programs included rounding the burros up and selling them as pets or pet food, sometimes destroying the animals. Today, this practice is illegal.
After the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971, the BLM became the managing agency responsible for protecting the wild burros and their habitat. The first wild burro gather in Arizona occurred in 1977 and was conducted near Alamo Lake in the west central portion of the state. Since that time, more than 12,000 wild burros have been captured and removed for the public rangelands in western Arizona. To maintain their population at about 1,600 animals, a level that the desert habitat can support, the BLM continues its population control program by gathering excess burros and offering them to the public through the BLM’s Adopt a Horse or Burro Program.