Mountain lions are eating California donkeys. That’s not bad

An apex predator has been secretly hunting invaders in Death Valley, and for the first time, the deadly encounter has been caught on camera.

In nighttime images, a mountain lion can be seen pouncing on the back of a wild donkey at a crotch.

The cougar easily wins the fight: a photo taken seven minutes later shows him standing over the dead donkey while staring into a wildlife camera, his eyes glittering.

“It’s extremely rare to get a predator in front of the camera,” said Erick Lundgren, the biologist who took the images. “I think that just goes to show [this] It really isn’t robbery [that] rare in Death Valley.”

The newly documented cougar-donkey dynamic has been the focus of little research, but could illustrate an evolving relationship between the two animals that could benefit the ecosystem, according to a recent study.

The feral donkeys, also known as donkeys, have long been considered invasive, disrupting native species and habitats in Death Valley, plundering wetlands and destroying vegetation that other animals rely on. But Lundgren hopes this study could change the way conservationists and researchers see donkeys.

“I was interested in the wild donkeys, not just as a pest … but as wildlife,” said Lundgren, the lead researcher on the report published in the Journal of Animal Ecology. “That’s how I think you should study them if you want to understand them.”

Not only did the study find that the donkeys were the “first documented prey” of mountain lions in certain areas of the national park, but also that the presence of the big cats changed how and when the donkeys ate, roamed, and congregated and how their interaction formed an “evolving ecological network”.

The increased predation “was associated with altered donkey activity patterns and rates, as well as reduced impacts of herbivory and disturbance on desert wetlands,” the study found. This will limit the damage done by the donkeys in those areas.

“There’s a prevailing narrative that wild horses and wild donkeys are problems…on a kind of biological level,” Lundgren said. “And I think that’s really unscientific.”

In areas where the mountain lions weren’t as active, the study found that donkeys continued to wreak havoc, the study said.

Three wild donkeys stand in a field in Death Valley National Park.

Three wild donkeys stand in a field in Death Valley National Park.

(Michael Alfuso)

Though the wild donkeys aren’t native to North America — they descended from the domesticated African wild ass brought west by pioneers during the Gold Rush — Lundgren notes that before the last Ice Age, the region was home to various horse-like species, alongside prehistoric mountain lions more than 10,000 years ago.

“Mountain lions appeared together with equidae [horse-related species], just like wild donkeys, for several million years,” he said. “So it’s kind of nice that they’re back together and that these new relationships are unfolding that in many ways mimic old relationships that have been around for millions of years.”

For Mairin Balisi, a paleontologist and co-author of the study, the images of the mountain lion kill were the “return of an extinct interaction.”

“Fossil ecosystems are useful for laying the foundations for conservation,” said Balisi, curator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont.

She said this evolving relationship in Death Valley has the potential to be a natural experiment in how the two species can benefit from each other and the surrounding habitat. She compares the interaction to the successful reintroduction of the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park, which had a positive impact on the food chain.

But for now, Death Valley officials remain committed to their zero-burro goal in the park, as a consensus from previous research shows the animals are “bareing vegetation at springs (sometimes entirely), polluting water with their excrement, and killing native wildlife, such as squirrels.” Bighorn sheep, from using sources,” said Death Valley spokeswoman Abby Wines.

“Mountain lion predation is not enough to control the donkey population in the park,” Wines said.

There are an estimated 4,000 wild donkeys on Parkland today, a dramatic increase from about 400 in 2005, she said. National park guides have been working to humanely remove the donkeys from the park in recent years.

Kate Schoenecker, a research wildlife biologist for the US Geological Survey at the Fort Collins Science Center who studies wild donkeys, said Death Valley is unlikely to be able to eradicate the animals because they live on nearby Bureau of Land Management land and protected by the US Forest Service.

She didn’t question the park’s efforts to remove the donkeys through trapping, but said she was thrilled that the new study provided a deeper insight into the understudied donkeys. In particular, she pointed out how the research documented the “risk-avoidance behavior of donkeys” that can positively impact ecosystems.

“This is really cool because it’s never been studied on donkeys,” said Schoenecker, who noted the difficulty in drawing too many conclusions from the recent study, given the small sample size and limited data.

“I think there’s a lot we don’t know yet,” Schoenecker said. “We’re still learning about the basic demographic rates of donkeys.”

Lundgren and Balisi agree that there should be more research on the wild donkeys and their broader impact on the ecosystem.

“Ecologically important predator-prey interactions can emerge rapidly in novel ecosystems,” Lundgren said, noting that he is concerned that the complete removal of donkeys could have unintended consequences for the larger food chain and, like ongoing threats to mountain lions, potentially beneficial ones could affect relationships. Mountain lions are eating California donkeys. That’s not bad

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