San Francisco — Here is an ecological story that seems well on the way to a happy ending: The National Park Service, determined to rid the Grand Canyon of a growing burro population that was slowly destroying the canyon landscape, had decided to have the little beasts of burden shot.
"No," insisted Cleveland Amory, president of the Fund for Animals, pointing out that the burro is not naturally wild but an "inoffensive, very intelligent little animal" that has been "a beast of burden for the whole world." Thus he proposed a massive trapping and airlifting operation.
Starting in July 1980, the fund spent more than $500,000 to trap 582 burros and helicopter them out of the canyon.
Recently eight or nine more have been spotted in the lower gorge, and under the agreement with the Park Service, the fund will return to the canyon in September to pick up those and any additional interlopers.
Next year three or four may turn up, says Mr. Amory, and the fund will go back and get them out, too. Meanwhile, the Park Service is building a fence at the lower end of the Grand Canyon to keep burros from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area from drifting in.
What about the burros taken out of the canyon? They were taken to the Fund for Animals' Black Beauty Ranch near Tyler, Texas, and put up for adoption. More than 300 have been taken by people who sign an agreement that if the burros are not treated with "respect, affection, and dignity," Amory can take them back.
More are being adopted almost every day, but Amory says a group of some 20 burros will be kept on the ranch.
Called the Shinumo herd, these little animals with dark brown coats and white noses roamed the lower gorge.
An earlier Park Service attempt to trap burros and have them adopted failed. Amory says a major reason was that the animals were made available in Arizona, where burros are no novelty. In east Texas, however, the little animals are more accessible to people from the Midwest and South, who are attracted by their novelty and then charmed by the burros' gentleness and intelligence.
Lawsuits by the American Humane Society and the Horse Protection Society aimed at blocking the Park Service's eradication plan failed. Then the Fund For Animals stepped in with its offer.
Amory said the burro issue pitted ordinarily allied groups against each other. Many environmentalists are convinced the sharp-hoofed, omnivorous burros would not only have severely eroded the canyon. but also would have endangered other, indigenous animals. "The suits never had a chance," he commented.
In addition, he says there is evidence that the Grand Canyon may have been as harmful to the burros as they were to it: Despite the fact that almost 600 animals were taken out of the canyon, less than 20 were more than six or seven years old. Domestic burros have a normal life span of upwards of 47 years.