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Estimating abundance and simulating fertility control in feral burros

June 20, 2021

Overabundant populations of feral equids are negatively impacting rangelands in the western United States. To effectively manage these populations, robust estimates of abundance and demography are necessary, as well as cost-effective methods of reducing abundance. We used a double-observer-sightability aerial survey method to estimate the number of feral burros (Equus asinus) occupying the Fort Irwin National Training Center (NTC), California, USA. We examined the efficacy of using porcine zona pellucida (PZP) immunocontraception as a control agent and used matrix population models to simulate how changes in demographic rates would influence abundance. We estimated there were 690 (CI: 618–752) feral burros within the surveyed area, but these are part of a much larger population that is not geographically isolated from those in the survey area. Sighting probabilities ranged from 0.19–0.98 and were most strongly influenced by distance from observer and group size. We estimated age-specific demographic rates at the NTC and compiled mean rates across burro populations in arid environments from the literature. Mean fecundity varied from 0.17 to 0.58 foals per adult female with younger females having lower fecundity. Mean survival was 0.90 for foals, 0.98 for yearlings, and 0.96 for adults. PZP vaccine treatment strategies that suppressed fertility for up to 10 years, predicted that burro abundance would be reduced by 67–88% after 15 years (compared with no treatment), but none of these strategies resulted in population extirpation. Our fieldwork also highlights the difficulty of administering PZP vaccination to large, free-ranging animals. Burro growth rates shifted from increasing to decreasing at adult survival rates below 0.84 and the population was predicted to become extirpated when adult survival declined below 0.60. In the absence of other methods to reduce burro numbers, our findings indicate that current formulations of PZP immunocontraception, which require multiple doses, would be inadequate for controlling population growth rates at the NTC and perhaps elsewhere. Development of longer-term fertility reduction agents and/or more efficient vaccine delivery techniques would likely improve the efficacy of fertility control for overabundant ungulate populations. Lack of geographic closure (physical barriers to migration) further complicates management efforts to reduce burro numbers.

Publication Year 2021
Title Estimating abundance and simulating fertility control in feral burros
DOI 10.1002/jwmg.22058
Authors Jay V. Gedir, James W. Cain III, Bruce C. Lubow, Talesha Karish, David K. Delaney, Gary W. Roemer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Wildlife Management
Index ID 70228605
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle