Changes to the water, air and land in coal country have caused trouble for vast amounts of biodiversity in the region. The biodiversity of the Appalachian headwater streams is second only to the tropics. The southern Appalachian mountains are home to the greatest diversity of salamanders on the globe, accounting for 18% of the known species worldwide.
Salamanders and other herptiles, birds, and mammals have all been struggling to adapt to the changing environmental conditions caused by mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in the Appalachian region. Salamanders become significantly less common in areas with many MTR sites. When the forests are clear cut for MTR coal mining, the woodlands are converted into grasslands. Grasslands do not provide salamanders with loose soil and a lot of ground cover, habitat characteristics required for their survival. The conversion of woodlands to grasslands has also affected bird populations in Appalachian. West Virginia is home to native woodland bird species like the Red-Shouldered Hawk and the Broad-winged Hawk, but as the number of intact forests decline, so do the number of native hawks. Since the expansion of MTR coal mining, native hawks have been outnumbered by an increase in open-country species like the Northern Harrier and the American Kestrel. A 2003 study showed an increase in other grassland bird species like Grasshopper Sparrows, Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows. The increase in Grasshopper Sparrows was explained by the fact that it colonizes most successfully in grassland habitats. Unlike Grasshopper Sparrows, interior forest songbird species native to the Appalachian region require a large amount of intact forest to survive, something not found in areas with MTR sites. MTR sites are affecting the survival rate of salamanders, native hawks and songbirds and mammals through the conversion of lush forest to clear cut grassland.
Mammals are deeply affected by the expansion of grassland areas in Appalchia due to the vast amount of reclaimed MTR coal mining sites in the region. A 2002 study of small mammal communities on reclaimed MTR sites showed that while small mammals can continue to thrive, species from the Peromyscus family—types of rodents that frequently make their homes in grasslands—are most abundant. Other mammals lose “traditional migration routes, travel corridors, and food sources” on reclaimed MTR sites. Reclaimed MTR sites make it difficult for native woodland species to thrive. According to EPA’s Fine Particle Emission Information System (FPEIS) study, deforestation and forest fragmentation from MTR coal mining disrupt the Appalachian forest and are harmful to forest-dwelling wildlife species. Wildlife species like, Eastern chipmunks, Woodland Jumping Mice, Woodland Voles, and Northern Short-tailed Shrew showed significant populations decrease once their wooded habitat was transformed into grasslands. Grassland transformation harms West Virginia’s state animal, the Black Bear, too. As MTR coal mining displaces bears from their forest home, they need to find another place to live. This leads to the now-frequent occurrence of bears in residential neighborhoods looking for shelter and food in garbage cans. The residents are put in danger and the bears are most often put to death, leading to dramatic declines in population. It is time for stronger environmental legislation that will allow for economic expansion in Appalachia, while protecting native and the species that inhabit them.
Burns, Shirley Stewart (2007), Bringing Down the Mountains: The Impact of Mountaintop Removal on Southern West Virginia Communities, University of West Virginia Press, Morgantown.
Epstein, Paul R, et al. (2011), Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1219: 73-98.