Pulling Up Stakes in the West

Audubon groups are saving birds from open-ended PVC mining stakes.

Lauren Abrams stands in a sea of sagebrush, gloved hands wrapped around a white plastic pipe sticking four feet out of the high-desert dirt. She tugs on the end and out spills loose soil, dead bees, and a carcass with a prominent beak and reddish feathers. "Probably a northern flicker," Abrams mutters.

This is the 162nd uncapped pipe she and her crew of volunteers have pulled on this sweltering August day from the dry hills 230 miles east of Reno, Nevada. Every one they knock over saves lives.

Used for decades by prospectors to mark mining claims on public lands, the open-ended PVC pipes have killed thousands—perhaps millions—of birds, lizards, and insects. Mistaking them for natural hollows, ash-throated flycatchers and dozens of other species are drawn to them for nesting, roosting, and conserving body heat. Once they enter the four-inch openings, the smooth interiors trap them inside. Death by dehydration or starvation soon follows.

Not every pipe has a dead bird, but some have as many as 15, says Ali Chaney, a biologist and member of Lahontan Audubon in Reno. The widespread entrapment of mountain bluebirds inspired a statewide campaign to eliminate uncapped mining stakes. "No one wanted the demise of the Nevada state bird on their hands," says Chaney.

She worked with Bristlecone and Red Rock Audubon and state mining officials on legislation that gave miners two years to mark their claims with substitute materials. After that, anyone would be allowed to pull up the stakes. The partnership between Audubon and the Nevada Mining Association had been so effective that the 2009 bill passed unanimously. "It's a mining-related issue, and we all want it fixed," says Tim Crowley, president of the association.

State wildlife officials wasted no time after the miners' two-year deadline passed in November. Crews working throughout Nevada have already removed more than 8,000 plastic mining stakes. "It feels good to get out on the ground and make a difference," says Christy Klinger, a state Department of Wildlife biologist coordinating the post-pulling program in southern Nevada.

With more than an estimated 3.4 million uncapped pipes remaining on public lands throughout the West, the work ahead is daunting. For birders, hunters, and hikers venturing into the remote backcountry where miners stake their claims, there's immense satisfaction that comes from eliminating one more death trap by knocking down a marker.

This story originally ran in the November-December 2012 as "Pipe Dreams."