ELKO — Hollow plastic pipes have been a problem — a big problem — for the birds of the American West.
The markers were the preferred method for people to “stake their claim” to a site that they felt held promise for the discovery of valuable minerals. Provided they filed a location notice, submitted a map of the boundaries, and paid a service charge to the Bureau of Land Management, there was no limit to the number of claims and sites one could hold.
This resulted in millions of white polyvinyl chloride pipes across the wide open expanses of many western states — a total of 3,447,175 at the end of 2011 to be exact — and they are causing more than a million bird deaths each year, according to Darin Schroeder of the American Bird Conservancy.
Small-bodied birds mistake the openings in the pipes as ideal roosting, nesting or resting sites, and happily enter, unknowingly causing their own demise. The smooth sides of the pipe coupled with the narrow diameter spell doom for them, as they are neither able to climb the walls nor extend their wings to fly out.
In Nevada alone, according to the BLM’s Public Land Statistics, there existed 1,059,721 mine claim markers at the end of 2011 — more than in any other state.
Many of the carcasses removed from these claim markers are cavity-nesting birds, and the openings of the markers resemble natural openings that are often hard to come by in the stark Nevada landscape. The mountain bluebird, Nevada’s state bird, is ironically one of the most frequently recovered victims. Others include western screech owls, cactus wrens, ladder-backed woodpeckers and western meadowlarks. In addition to birds, small mammals, insects and lizards have also been extracted from these pipes.
With many bird species declining across their range, they don’t need another obstacle to overcome. Furthermore, the intentional killing of these often vulnerable species is in violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Fortunately, steps are being taken to alleviate this problem. A large part of the threat comes from abandoned markers. Many organizations, including the Nevada Department of Wildlife, Great Basin Institute, various state Audubon societies, and the BLM have been working together to implement solutions.
It is easy to mandate that all new mine claim markers be solid in nature (the current specifications prohibit setting out perforated or uncapped pipes), but the mandates must be enforced, holding individuals who choose not to comply accountable under the MBTA. A 1991 BLM interim policy required claim holders to cap hollow posts, but unfortunately it was discovered that through time these caps blow off or are removed.
Some individuals in Nevada have been instrumental in changing laws to alleviate this ecological problem.
NDOW biologist Pete Bradley spearheaded a project after becoming aware that mountain bluebirds were dying in hollow mine claim markers in the Great Basin. He began collecting data in 1986 to document the extent of bird mortality, and worked through 2009 helping to remove 11,000 abandoned posts.
As part of Bradley’s ongoing work, NDOW tried to work with the Nevada Mining Association and BLM, but they ran into barriers and little action was taken. Eventually it was realized that the law had to be changed.
Ali Chaney learned of the problem from Bradley. Serving as conservation chair of the Lahontan Audubon Society, she drafted a letter to the NMA in the fall of 2007. Mark Amodei, then president of the NMA, became instrumental in moving things forward. He left his position, however, before the legislature met, and current NMA president Tim Crowley took over.
Chaney and the Audubon societies worked closely with Crowley to draft a bill, and once support was secured from both Barrick and Newmont, it was passed in July of 2009.
Chaney gives credit to the mining industry, stating, “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without their support.”
The new law not only prohibits the setting out of any hollow pipes — even if they are capped — but requires existing hollow pipes to be replaced by solid markers. The law provided claim holders two years to make the necessary replacements; after 2011, any remaining hollow pipes on the landscape were deemed invalid as claim markers. Another provision makes it legal for anyone who encounters one of these pipes to knock it over and lay it horizontally on the ground. By doing this, one removes that pipe’s threat to wildlife.
Christy Klinger of NDOW has been instrumental in orchestrating the removal of pipes and maintaining the database that reflects the impact these pipes are having on wildlife mortality. Since the legislation passed, Klinger has been on a mission to educate as many people as possible about the issue and what to do about it. She has organized internal post pulls, and encouraged other groups to do the same.
Specimens collected from the markers are sent to Klinger for identification and inventory. Klinger maintains a database reflecting numbers of posts removed, mortalities, and areas of the state where posts are located in high densities.
The last post pulls were conducted in south-central Nevada in December of 2012. As of that time, a total of 22,718 posts had been knocked down, and 9,459 dead birds recorded. This is a mortality rate of less than 1 bird per pipe; however, some habitats prove to be much deadlier than others. In the Mojave Desert the mortality rate is as high as three birds per pipe. Forty-eight species have been positively identified mummified inside these mine claim markers, and one marker alone contained 42 dead birds.
In 2008, Klinger participated in a post pull near Lida. Of 982 posts removed, 217 dead birds were recorded and 1,137 reptiles.
While it is encouraging that the problem has been identified and a solution put forth, it has been estimated that tens of thousands of hollow pipes from abandoned claims remain scattered across the Nevada desert, taking the lives of countless birds each year. Some believe that the efforts currently underway by volunteer groups are barely making a dent.
Others, however, are optimistic. Klinger said of the areas she knows containing dense concentrations of posts, approximately 25 percent have been addressed.
Chaney said it all comes down to funding. Volunteers are limited in the time and effort they can provide. Bristlecone Audubon Society is securing grants for a project, and Great Basin Institute hires the field crews to do the removal. Thus far, donations have been received from California Audubon ($22,000), Nevada Division of Minerals ($27,000), the NMA and NDOW ($47,000), Barrick ($15,000) and Newmont ($12,000), for a total of $123,000.
Various groups have been involved in the cleanup of these hollow pipes. Brandon Teppo, three-year Youth Conservation Corp crew leader at Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, fulfilled volunteer hours for a Great Basin College internship course during summer of 2012 by removing swaths of PVC pipes located south of the refuge in White Pine County.
“The project was mostly treated as a scan, sweep and remove mission to get the most PVC posts as possible in the smallest amount of time,” he said.
In two days he removed 55 posts, and found roughly one mortality for every four pipes removed. Of the next 48 pipes removed, only one contained any mortalities.
The majority of the work has been contracted out through Great Basin Institute, which began another field season this week and will work for at least 18 weeks. Once the money runs out, securing additional funding will be critical to the continuation of the project.
“If requested in the future to support continued removal efforts we would evaluate the program and likely assist with the project,” said Mary Korpi, director of external relations for Newmont. She also said that whenever Newmont acquires new claims they replace all illegal claim markers with approved solid posts.
Louis Schack, communications director for Barrick, similarly said they are open to new requests for support. He also said that Barrick is interested in helping resolve the problem, as no one is happy about wildlife being killed over something as simple as hollow pipes.
Both Newmont and Barrick have worked in the past to remove some of these markers.
Everyone can be part of the solution.
“The bottom line — anyone who sees them, knock them down,” said Klinger. But, unless an individual is going to clean out the entire area of pipes, it is best to leave them all standing and contact her with the specific location.
Through the efforts of those who have already devoted so much to this project, combined with input from the general public, one day Nevada can be largely free of these hollow plastic death traps.