SALT LAKE CITY — One of only two wild burro populations in Utah is slated to be gathered in March under a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management that also includes an extensive five-year study.
Federal agencies and their partners will use infrared, body heat sensing equipment to more accurately map the Sinbad herd's numbers in January because the wild animals are living up to their reputation by stubbornly refusing to be counted.
"It's cutting edge. We will be able to identify burros based off their heat signature," said Gus Warr, the BLM Utah wild horse and burro specialist. "Burros are tough to identify and count because the jacks go off by themselves and the jennies and foals stick together. They blend into the background and they don't run. They'll just stand there and look at you."
The BLM released an environmental analysison its proposal to gather up to 200 of the animals and permanently remove about 130 from the range in March. The agency's ideal number is 60 animals for the Sinbad herd, but an aerial survey in June of 2014 revealed there may be as many as 200 animals.
Overpopulation coupled with years of drought are driving the need for the gathering, but the removal is also part of a larger, five-year study being carried out by the U.S. Geological Survey's Fort Collins Science Center and Colorado State University.
Warr said that despite man's long history with the domesticated burro, not much is known about the animal.
"There's surprisingly been very little research done over the years," he said. "This is a huge opportunity for us because there is not much data out there. This will provide us with better management tools."
Trying to get a handle on the dynamics of the Sinbad herd has proved difficult over the years given the size of the range — nearly 100,000 acres — and the tough terrain in the San Rafael Swell area.
The BLM has conducted three gatherings of the Sinbad herd in the past 22 years — in 1996, 2001 and 2008.
Warr said the research being carried out will look at the herd's mortality rate, its mobility and age-specific survival, as well as its habitat.
"This is ground zero because you have to know how many of them are out there if you are going to manage them."
The study of the Sinbad herd is among 21 research projects being funded by the federal government at a cost of $11 million.
A 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences criticized the BLM and said it needed to use a more science-based approach to managing wild horse and burro populations. This research and the proposed gather, Warr added, is a result that grew out of the report's recommendations.