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Feds elevate their fight against bird-killing mine markers

Biologists in Southern Nevada have taken to the sky in hopes of eliminating an earthly menace to birds.

Earlier this year, Carla Wise from the Bureau of Land Management and Christy Klinger from the Nevada Department of Wildlife spent hours in a helicopter logging the locations of hollow plastic pipes used to mark mining claims.

The GPS data they collected from the air near Goodsprings, Sandy Valley and parts of southern Nye County will be used this winter by crews dispatched to pull down what Wise hopes are the last hundred or so hollow-pipe mine markers left on public land in Southern Nevada.

Such markers are death traps for birds, which get stuck inside the 4-inch-wide, slick-sided pipes and slowly die of thirst or starvation. Nevada outlawed their use in 1993, but untold thousands of them still dot the landscape in the Silver State and other hotbeds of mining activity.

In November 2011, it became legal for anyone to pull down an uncapped pipe from a mining claim on public land and lay it on the ground where it’s found.

Since then, the BLM has teamed with state wildlife officials and volunteers from the Audubon Society and other groups to pull more than 9,200 plastic pipes and collect more than 8,000 dead birds in Clark and southern Nye counties. Wise said all that remain are the mine markers on private property and on public land too rugged and remote to be cleared by a team of Girl Scouts.

The goal is to have every known plastic pipe knocked down in BLM’s Southern Nevada District — from Beatty south to the southern tip of the state — by February, Wise said. “There’s really not that much left.”

The final push in Southern Nevada comes as a coalition of more than 100 environmental groups led by the American Bird Conservancy is calling on federal authorities to accelerate their response to the problem.

In a recent letter commending the federal response so far, the coalition said “much work remains to be done to remove existing hazards” and establish new regulations “to prevent this form of bird mortality from continuing to occur on public lands in the future.”

The BLM has partnered with the American Bird Conservancy and the National Mining Association on a flyer that will be mailed to mine claim holders to alert them to the problem and urge corrective action, especially on private land, where Nevada’s rules allowing the pipes to be pulled down do not apply.

Meanwhile, Forest Service staff are working to cover open vent pipes on outhouses that were trapping birds.

Mine claim holders started using plastic pipe decades ago because it’s lightweight, durable and easy to spot from a distance.

Wise can certainly vouch for that. She said she had little trouble seeing the markers from the air, though at times the helicopter had to hover less than 100 feet off the ground to pinpoint some of harder-to-find pipes.

“I needed my Dramamine, I’ll tell you that,” she said.

It’s unknown how many plastic pipe mine markers still remain throughout the rest of Nevada, but government statistics from last year show almost 1.1 million active mining claims, mostly in the northern half of the state. Nationwide, there are more than 3.5 million active claims on BLM land, and an untold number of abandoned claims that might still pose a hazard to birds.

Typically the boundaries of a claim is marked with four or more markers.

Officials don’t know the exact toll hollow pipe markers have had on birds and other wildlife, but as many as 30 dead birds have been found in a single tube. Wildlife officials in Nevada have recovered more than 40 different species of birds from hollow pipe markers. The most common victim is the cavity-nesting mountain bluebird, official state bird of both Nevada and Idaho.

Uncapped pipes also trap and kill lizards, snakes and small rodents.

“As a biologist, you know the consequences,” Wise said. “It’s kind of shocking.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Find him on Twitter: @RefriedBrean.

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