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Wild burros raft Grand Canyon rapids

Hundreds airlifted by helicopter in historic Grand Canyon roundup

If you were in the Grand Canyon in 1980-81, you might have seen a strange sight: wild burros being lifted out by helicopter or floating by on rafts.

Mark Applequist, of Cortez, was part of the volunteer crew that transported the burros on rafts, and he shared the story during a slide show at the Dolores public library recently.

The National Park Service had long wanted to get rid of the growing burro population in the Grand Canyon because they competed with native wildlife for grazing lands.

Burros are a small-type of donkey. They served as beasts of burden during the mining days before the area became a national park in 1919.

By 1980, they had multiplied to 600 strong. Fund for Animals put up $500,000 to help the park service relocate the animals and put them up for adoption, rather than having them slaughtered.

Most were hoisted out one at a time by helicopter, but as part of a “publicity stunt,” the park service also decided to transport some of the burros out of the canyon by raft, Applequist said.

“It was a good photo op for newspapers and magazines of the day like Life,” he said. “I was one of the swampers, and built a huge cooler for the trip. We gathered up 50 burros of the 100 or so transported by raft.”

The unconventional round-up involved custom-built rafts with corrals and ramps and professional boaters. Cowboys and horses were hired to gather the burros. They were gathered up along a 40-mile stretch of the canyon, and dropped off at Diamond Creek where they were transported by truck to Black Beauty Ranch in Texas and put up for adoption.

Helicopters picked up rafts and boaters at Diamond Creek and transported them back up river 40 miles for another run.

“As the Hollywood saying goes ‘No mules were injured or killed in this operation,’” Applequist joked. “Actually, the burros were pretty mellow riding on the raft compared to the horses, who were not happy about it.”

Professional guides maneuvered the 32-foot pontoon rafts through medium-size rapids, with the aid of a 20-horsepower motor. The pontoons used for the rafts were the same ones used to support temporary bridges in WWII to get military vehicles across rivers in Germany.

“They could handle the weight of a few burros and horses, no problem,” Applequist said.

At several sites along the river, boats would meet cowboys who were dispatched to find the burros, which were not used to seeing people, let alone getting captured for a surprise rafting trip.

Sometimes helicopters would be called in to push the burros toward cowboys. It took three to four men to convince a single 400-pound burro to walk the ramp onto the floating corral.

“They were remarkably cooperative for not being around people much,” Applequist said. “During the rapids, none of them fell over. Some of the ones lifted out by helicopter were pretty freaked out, though.”

The burros were originally brought into the canyon to work at mines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the Tanner copper mine, which is the namesake of nearby Tanner Rapid.

“There was an old cabin and some scattered mining equipment still there. You could walk into the mine, but the air was toxic,” Applequist said.

The storytelling of the old-school cowboys and river guides was a highlight of the trip, he said. Working in the canyons as choppers flew back and forth was also exciting, and provided good photo ops.

“There is nothing quite as disorienting as being below a helicopter attaching a load,” he said. “For a college student, the whole trip was quite an experience, and makes a great river story.”

He said the park service still keeps an eye out for wild burros they may have missed during the historic, one-of-a-kind roundup.


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