By PAUL J. WEBER
PRESIDIO, Texas (AP) -- Unofficially, the state of Texas celebrates donkeys and their historical and cultural significance in shaping the American West. Officially? The policy on small, wild donkeys is shoot to kill.
Texas park rangers are trying to wipe out hundreds of free-roaming donkeys in Big Bend State Park, killing nearly 130 to date with .308-caliber bolt-action rifles on this side of the Rio Grande. But in the process, the shootings are stirring a whole new kind of cross-border controversy, pitting state officials against donkey-lovers who believe the animal holds a special place in history and deserves protection.
The state's stance: wild donkeys wandering over from Mexico simply don't belong. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department considers an estimated 300 of the donkeys in Big Bend to be destructive intruders, hogging forage and lapping up precious water in the drought-starved mountains -- thereby threatening the survival of hundreds of native species.
Outraged locals, however, claim there's only one animal the state really cares about -- bighorn sheep.
"They say we're doing this just so four rich white guys can hunt bighorn sheep out here," said David Riskind, director of natural resources for the parks agency. "That's just not true."
Once extinct in Texas for decades, bighorns made a heralded homecoming to Big Bend last year when a herd of nearly four dozen was relocated to the 316,000-acre range. But even that's not big enough for what the state says are foreign donkeys and the native bighorns.
Skeptics suspect the state's stance is all a wink to wealthy and well-connected hunters. Coveted state permits to bag bighorns fetch upward of $100,000 at auction in Texas, and opponents like Margaret Farabee of the Wild Burro Protection League believe that's why the state wants to eliminate any threat to the sheep's survival so the bighorn hunters can one day return to Big Bend.
Riskind said it will take decades before the bighorn population is robust enough to possibly allow hunting in Big Bend, but that doesn't quiet the doubts of a growing campaign to save the donkeys-- for a second time.
Among those trying to stop the shootings include a Wisconsin woman who's bombarded the state with open records requests; a former state park supervisor in Big Bend; and more than 94,000 supporters on Change.org, making it one of the website's most popular petitions ever.
But their biggest ally may be history. In 2007, a similar uproar caused the state to temporarily suspend its first foray into "lethal control" after parks rangers killed 71 wild burros.
Luis Armenderiz, the former Big Bend supervisor who retired following the initial controversy, said the donkeys are no more destructive to the park than humans who put in bike trails.
"We are invading their ecosystem. They're not invading ours," Armenderiz said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.