Estimates run as high as 4 million plastic mine claim markers standing across Nevada.
Nevada’s hills have a tragic secret.
Nestled among the sagebrush, wind and sky, millions of PVC pipe posts stand upright in the rocky dirt as enduring white sentries that mark mining claims staked by decades of prospectors.
Inside many of these hollow posts lie the corpses of birds that became trapped in the polyvinyl coffins.
“They’re cavity nesters,” Bristlecone Audubon Society conservation chairman Pete Bradley said of the vulnerable species such as mountain bluebirds and mountain chickadees. “They’re used to going into dark holes.”
But the mine claim markers are anything but safe havens for wildlife.
Whether to escape a late winter storm on their migration north or to find cozy spots for nesting, Bradley said, birds pop into these 4-inch diameter pipes and become trapped. Unlike a rough hole in a tree, the pipes’ slick, unnatural walls offer no grip to climb out, and the tight space offers no room for birds to spread their wings and fly to freedom. Imprisoned by the plastic post, the birds slowly die of starvation or dehydration.
“Once, with binoculars,” Bradley said. “I watched a male American kestrel perched on a post, staring down inside over and over. I avoided him for a while and came back to the post about a half hour later. The male was gone and his recently deceased mate was in the bottom of the post. Given how long it takes for a bird to die of dehydration, I imagine this male had kept vigil for some days, if not weeks.”
For decades, Nevada law has said it is illegal to disturb an active mine claim, thus making it illegal for anyone to pull out these avian death traps. Conservationists have been working since 1983 to find a legal and long-term solution to stop this bird mortality, and in 2009 their struggle finally became NRS 517.030. That’s legalese for a Nevada Revised Statute allowing anyone to pull up plastic pipe mine claim markers and lay them down next to where they were embedded in the ground as of Nov. 1.
It’s taken more than 20 years of coaxing by conservationists to get the mining industry and state legislators to move this far, but now the real work for wildlife lovers begins.
“We pushed very hard to get the regulations through,” said Bureau of Land Management biologist Chris Ross, “but we don’t have the resources to go out and knock out 4 million of these poles.”
Estimates run as high as 4 million plastic mine claim markers standing across Nevada, said Ross. While about 200,000 mine claims are currently active, there are about 800,000 abandoned mine claims across the state. With no law requiring removal or cleanup of a claim upon abandonment, and an average of six posts per claim, the number of possible abandoned posts is staggering.
And it gets worse. A count of 32 dead birds in one post has been recorded from a post pulled in Elko County, according to Bradley.
“We find a lot of them that died together,” Bradley said. “They may be trying to get out of a storm or the cold together.”
Every hollow mine claim marker left standing poses a threat until it is full to the rim with carcasses or until it is pulled out of the ground.
“When you pull a post and see one dead bird in it, you don’t think it’s a big deal because there are thousands and thousands of birds out there,” said Ali Chaney, former conservation chairperson for the Lahontan Audubon Society and a biologist with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “But when you start multiplying the number of posts and looking at the threat that each one of those posts pose, then you see the bigger picture. It’s thousands of birds that are dying across the state.”
Motivated by the huge impact PVC mine markers are having on avian communities, Chaney and the Audubon Society spearheaded the 2009 bill with the help of Nevada Department of Wildlife biologists.
Also on their side is the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects migratory birds such as the mountain bluebird from known harm.
While the deaths of mountain bluebirds (Nevada’s state bird), ash-throated flycatchers, mountain chickadees and American kestrels were what inspired enough sympathy to get the legislation approved, the deadly impact of the posts goes further.
Bumblebees, geckos and scorpions also fall victim to the unnatural hazard.
Many of the PVC posts are drilled with lines of half-inch holes. Over time, the soil level inside the pipes gets lower than the surrounding ground. Small animals are able to crawl into the holes near ground level, but once inside drop too low to reach the holes and climb out.
“We’ve found as many as 18 lizards in one post,” Bradley said. “And thousands of bees in another.”
Bradley, also a biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, said it’s impossible to know the extent of the damage being done to the ecosystem.
“Any animal may be the critical link in the web,” he said. “If we lose that link, it may have an effect on the entire ecosystem. We just don’t know.”
We also don’t know exactly where these millions of perilous PVC posts are. With nearly 48 million acres of public land in Nevada managed by the Bureau of Land Management and decades of mining claims out there, it may be impossible to find them all.
Nevada Mining Association President Tim Crowley said that all the major mining companies have removed the PVC posts on their claims.
“We don’t want the claims hurting wildlife,” Crowley said.
But that still leaves untold numbers of posts erected by “casual use prospectors,” many of whom scramble high up the mountainside to mark their claims to possible riches of gold, silver, copper or even opals. And when the prospectors tire of paying the $100 annual fee to keep the claim valid, the wildlife menace remains.
“Nobody goes out and pulls up posts after abandoning because they’ve never had to,” Ross said. While the BLM manages the public land, it’s the state legislature that makes the rules governing mining claims.
In order to get the Nevada Mining Association behind the post-pulling legislation, Chaney and other conservationists agreed to the requirement that pulled PVC posts must be placed on the ground next to where they are found to ensure that a visible evidence of the claim remains.
“I hate the idea of leaving the pipes on the ground, but it gets rid of the mortality issue,” Bradley said. “And the antelope ground squirrels like using them for habitat.”
BLM’s Ross agreed. “It’s a good compromise. It’s going to leave a lot of stuff on the ground, but it’s also going to stop things from dying in the pipes.”
One-end-open pipes are killing wildlife in other states as well.
“California is looking at their agricultural drain pipes that aren’t capped and they are finding dead birds,” Chaney said. “They are trying to raise awareness about these open-ended posts becoming death traps to animals.”
The hard work begins
NDOW crews have been working for years to remove PVC posts that were verified as abandoned through an arduous data-searching process. Now, with taxpayer and conservationist funding, their efforts along with those of volunteers can hit the fast track.
So far, a $22,000 grant from the Audubon Society and $47,000 from the Nevada Department of Wildlife are secured to scour the hills of these posts. The Nevada Mining Association has declined a request from Nevada’s Audubon Society chapters for funding to remove posts, citing a limited budget and a lack of consistency with the association’s mission.
Post-pulling crews have their work cut out for them.
“So many of these are so hard to get to because they’re so remote,” Bradley said. “I think it’s a stretch that we could get it done in three years, even with lots of crews and volunteers.”
However long it takes, Bradley said, it’s important to get all the posts.
“The biggest killers are the ones that are way up in the hills,” said Bradley. “If there’s a single post up there, I go after it.”