About 2004 I was returning to Las Vegas from a fishing trip in Bishop, CA. You can take the highway through Tonopah, but the fun route is to drive over Weyguard Pass (which is nothing more than a paved over cowpath) and drop down into Fishlake Valley, NV. Heading east and driving up out of the valley, one passes through the old mining district of Palmetto. I remember seeing the hillside pocked with tailing piles and dozens of white PVC pipes, like the kind of pipes landscapers use for drainage. The pipes were erected like some type of boundary marker, and indeed, that was their purpose. In the 1970’s prospectors used these pipes to mark their claims. Before, a pile of rocks or a wooden post marked claims, but these pipes were lightweight , easy to see from a long distance, and most of all, they were cheap. At the time, I had no idea that years later I would take up birding and learn about the dark side of those bright markers.
Jim Boone is a well known person in the Southern Nevada conservation community. Many people know of his website, www.BirdAndHike.com, where you can find pictures and descriptions of just about anything related to the outdoors in bottom corner of this desert state. Jim knew of the claim makers deadly consequences, but he couldn’t do anything about it until 2011, when state mining laws were changed. So here’s the problem. There are a variety of birds that like to explore holes, mostly in trees or rocks, and they’re either doing one of two things. They either looking for food or looking for a suitable nesting site. An open, hollow PVC pipe of about 4-5 inches in diameter is terribly appealing to birds such as Ash-throated Flycatchers, Mountain Bluebirds, Rock Wrens, Black-tailed Gnatcatchers, etc. The birds don’t know it, but once they drop down into a 5-foot tall pipe, they are doomed to a slow death of dehydration or heat prostration. The pipes are not big enough for the birds to fly out, and the interior walls are too slick for them to crawl out. To quote Jim Boone, “In their years of evolution, they’ve always dropped into little dark holes, and they’ve always had claws to scratch their way out. They never had to deal with this kind of problem, and in fact, they have no way to deal with it.” At the height of the prospecting boom in the 1970’s and ’80’s, it’s reported that approximately one million pipes were erected across the west, most in Nevada. Each prospector’s claim requires six markers to make it a legal claim. Jim says on average, each pipe that he encounters holds five dead birds. That’s a lot of birds.
In 1991 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) outlawed the use of open, hollow pipes to be used as claim markers. And around that time the Nevada state legislature passed a law stating that claim markers using hollow pipes could be knocked over after a 20 year grace period allowing prospectors time to retrofit their claims. So in 2011, conservation organizations and individuals began knocking down pipes. (The law states that the pipes can’t be removed, just knocked over so that they are no longer a threat to birds.). Jim has been knocking over pipes for a number of years and has done a tremendous amount to clear areas such as Gold Butte National Monument and Basin and Range National Monument of claim marker pipes from a bygone era.
If you are hiking in the Nevada outback and see a 4″-5″ hollow PVC pipe, do one for the birds and knock it over.