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Mining claim markers killing millions of birds in U.S. West

Published by MAC on 2012-07-11

Mining claim markers killing millions of birds in U.S. West

By Laura Zuckerman

Reuters

30 June 2012

SALMON, Idaho - Millions of birds have died and millions more are in danger from an obscure but widespread hazard in 12 Western states - uncapped plastic pipes used to mark many of the 3.4 million mining claims on public lands, wildlife advocates say.

Migratory birds from western meadowlarks and mountain bluebirds to screech owls and woodpeckers are mistaking the open ends of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, pipes for natural hollows suitable for nesting, roosting or congregating to generate body heat.

Doomed birds enter the PVC pipes, which average 4 inches in diameter and stand about 4 feet high, but become trapped as they fail to gain traction on the smooth interior surfaces and cannot extend their wings to fly out of the narrow cavities. They eventually succumb to starvation or dehydration.

Federal land management officials acknowledge the threat, estimated by the American Bird Conservancy as responsible for at least 1 million bird deaths a year, although mining industry representatives say wildlife advocates exaggerate the problem.

PVC piping - durable, cheap and easily visible - became the material of choice for the flagging of mining claims in the West over the past several decades, wildlife managers said.

Those claims have proliferated under a century-old law that permits private citizens to stake rights to gold, silver and other "hard-rock minerals" on federal property administered by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Mining claim boundaries must be marked but the nation's hard-rock mining law - which dates to the 1870s and was enacted in part to promote development and settlement of the Western frontier - leaves it to states and mining districts to regulate how those delineations are made.

Government land managers insist they take bird mortality from PVC pipes very seriously and are assessing the full extent of bird die-offs across hundreds of millions of acres of BLM land and national forests.

"We're in clear acknowledgment of the issue and will be examining what guidelines or polices may be needed for structures that place birds at risk," said Chris Iverson, assistant director of wildlife for the Forest Service.

The BLM is looking at ways to coax, rather than mandate, changes in how mining claims are staked.

"We would expect to see a more immediate change with partnering rather than regulating," said Geoff Walsh, a BLM migratory bird liaison.

Possible steps include encouraging prospectors, through a letter or web-based campaign, to replace PVC pipes with solid markers such as wooden posts.

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