Nevada has an extraordinary diversity of minerals and currently ranks as the number one gold producing state in the nation. As a result, the Silver State has a rich mineral heritage. Unfortunately, part of that legacy has been detrimental for the state bird and many other species.
Staking a mine claim is a complicated process, governed by various federal and state laws. Part of the procedure requires the claimant to locate and distinctly define the boundaries of the claim by placing a valid, legal monument at each corner. Since the early 1980s, hollow, white plastic posts have been popular for marking new claims throughout the Western U.S., with exceptionally high use in Nevada. Unfortunately, cavity-nesting birds and other wildlife looking for a safe place to rest or nest are attracted to the opening at the top of these markers. They enter the post and become trapped and perish.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) has positively identified at least 55 different bird species that have succumbed in the posts, including countless mountain bluebirds – Nevada’s state bird. Christy Klinger, a biologist from the Wildlife Diversity Division of NDOW said, “In the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, the price of gold skyrocketed, causing claim owners to make sure their claims were marked clearly. Thousands of PVC pipe markers were driven into the ground all across the state. This type of marking went on years, until gold prices started to decline and claim owners started abandoning claims.”
In 2011, legislation was passed that now makes it acceptable for anyone to knock over any uncapped post located on public land. Nevada has the highest density of these type markers. There are tens of thousands of claims in this state; the majority of them are located in the middle and northern areas. The number of claims range vastly county to county. For example, Lincoln County only has 2,080 mining claims within its boundaries, while Eureka has over 21,000.
The department’s Mine Claim Marker Remediation Project is an on-going effort to locate and knock down hollow markers as well as estimate wildlife mortality through looking at the post contents. Due to how labor-intensive the project is and not knowing how many posts exist in Nevada nor where they are all located, it will take years of work to complete.
Volunteers and agency personnel locate mine claim markers by scanning the landscape with binoculars, hiking or driving an ATV to the posts and investigating each one and knocking it down by hand. Wildlife remains are emptied from each hollow marker and identified on site and/or collected and later identified by qualified personnel. The number of markers knocked down are recorded and tallied, as well as numbers and species of dead birds and occasionally mammals and reptiles too.
Since NDOW began keeping records, at least 78 project areas have been treated, although most are not considered completely cleared of mine claim markers. More than 11,000 bird mortalities have been documented in at least 32,500 total posts that were knocked down. Fifty-five different species have been identified among the mortalities, with ash-throated flycatchers, wrens and mountain bluebirds being the most common species statewide. Nearly half the identified species are known cavity-nesters and account for 89 percent of all identified carcasses to date. Bird mortalities associated with these markers may represent a substantial population sink for several species that occupy Nevada for at least part of their annual life cycle, according to NDOW.
It is unknown how many posts remain standing in Nevada, but estimates range from the tens to the hundreds of thousands. Given the durability and extremely slow decomposition rate of these hollow markers, the problem worsens with each passing day that posts remain standing. The reality is that these posts will continue to kill wild birds, reptiles, mammals and insects until such time that either they fill up to the brim with carcasses or they are physically knocked down, whichever comes first. The Department of Wildlife hopes, through additional hard work, long hours and more funding, they can rid the Nevada landscape of this threat to wildlife.