Dendrocia cerulea: An Ecological Consideration

by Grant A. Mincy


(Image Credit goes to Lynn Quinn. You can find her artwork here.)

At Home in the Deciduous Canopy

The Cerulean warbler (CERW), Dendrocia cerulea, is a charismatic song bird endemic to the Appalachian mountains. The CERW nests and raises its young in the Appalachian highlands among the canopies of deciduous trees. When not in the highlands, the songbird finds its home in mesic cove forests among large tracts of undisturbed habitat (Hamel 2000). The CERW’s core breeding area is in eastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, southern and western West Virginia, southeastern Ohio, and southwestern Pennsylvania. During migration, Cerulean’s pass through the southern United States, flying across the Gulf of Mexico to the highlands of Central America and on to South America (Hamel 2000). They winter in broad-leaved evergreen forests within a narrow band of middle elevations (1,600 to 6,000 ft.) in the Andes Mountains of northern South America from Columbia to Peru and Venezuela (Hamel 2000).

Cerulean Warblers nest and raise their young in large tracts of deciduous hardwood forests. For this reason the species greatly enjoys the weeping mountains of southern and central Appalachia as they remain mostly forested. They also prefer a large forest patch size and choose to nest in hickory, oak and maple trees (Hamel 2000). Cerulean’s are considered area-sensitive because they prefer breeding in large forest tracts. They will breed in smaller forested stands in areas where the larger landscape is well-forested (Hamel 2000). Cerulean’s eat mostly insects, including bees, wasps, caterpillars, and weevils. They search for and take insects from the leaves and the foliage at the base of many different tree species. During winter, Cerulean’s also feed on nectar (Hamel 2000).

The CERW is an important species because it is experiencing a rapid population decline due to habitat depletion and fragmentation. 70% of the population has vanished in the past three decades because of anthropogenic land use (Hamel 2000). Perhaps the greatest threat to the bird is the relationship between the fossil fuel industry and our federal government. Mainly, the Department of Interior, charged with protecting our cherished national parks, this federal buerocracy also hands out permits to the coal industry in what can arguabbly be called the greatest theft of wealth, labor, cultural and natural heritage the Appalachians have ever known. The coal industry with their, “new school” method of coal mining known as Mountaintop Removal (MTR), has sites and permits awaiting authorization that are located within the key breeding zones of the CERW (Boves 2010).  The Cerulean is a very significant part of Appalachia in that it is a species in danger of extinction in one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet. What is imperiling this bird, much like all threatened species, is anthropogenic impacts to the biosphere (NAS 2000). The bird is at the mercy of the corporate state apparatus, to an industry that is showered with subsidies and a state that puts corporations above the biosphere.


The Process of Mountaintop Removal

MTR is an advanced method of surface mining that is occurring on a large scale across Appalachia. The coal industry and politicians consistently blur the lines between the removal of mountaintops, sides and bottoms along with Cross Ridge Contour Mining and the valley fill process. The mining techniques used in all of these processes are the same. The goal of mountaintop strip mining is to effectively remove desired parts of a mountain to gain access to underlying coal seams. The process as a whole is horribly destructive to the environment and impairs critical habitat for many species, including the Cerulean warbler.

First, all native vegetation is uprooted from a site and removed along with all the topsoil in the area. Large bulldozers then carve roads into the mountainside so that mining equipment and machines can reach the top of the mountain (Nolt 2005). Upon reaching the mine site, large holes are drilled into the mountain until a desired coal seam is reached. When this is accomplished, explosives are set and detonated to gain access to the coal seam (Nolt 2005). Three million pounds of explosives a day, six days a week, are detonated throughout the Appalachian coalfields (Webb 2010). When the explosions occur, Earth materials that have been buried are suddenly oxidized, the result of this is the toxification of certain materials. This toxic debris is referred to as overburden and is bulldozed off of the mine site into the valleys below, covering streams and decimating related habitats (Nolt 2005). This process is refereed to as valley fill.

Drag-lining is then commenced to gather desired coal.  Drag-liners are giant machines that scrap the coal off of the surface of the Earth (Nolt 2005). The coal is then “cleaned” with water and then removed from the site (SOCM 1992). The water, however, becomes toxic due to this process and is refereed to as slurry. The toxic slurry is left in open containment’s or in underground mines (SOCM 1992). Reclamation is the final process of MTR and surface mining events. Reclamation attempts to restore the mountain ecosystem by recreating wildlife habitat (Nolt 2005). Though recently steps have been taken to plant trees and shrubs (NMA 2009), it is common for non native grass feed, called hydro-seed, to be sprayed on the reclamation area (Bullock 2007).

Arguments for and Against MTR

Today, arguments both for and against MTR are growing increasingly heated.  The coal industry continually defends the strip mining process with a number of arguments. The industry claims that MTR and other practices safely and efficiently extracts coal from mining sites and that this is necessary to meet growing US energy demands (NMA 2009). Industry also claims that the reclamation process fully restores mountain ecosystems equal to or even better than their original capacity according to the rules of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.  These reclaimed sites are said to be used for commercial development thus helping local economies (NMA 2009). Another pro argument made by industry is that MTR offers high wage, desirable positions that are the economic engines of local, state and regional economies (NMA 2009). The arguments championed by the coal industry, however, are easily refutable.

marsh_forkThe environmental impacts of strip mining alone are devastating to the health of the biosphere, including the health of human beings. From extraction to consumption, strip mining coal is a dangerous and destructive process (Nolt 2005). When mountains are leveled, crucial habitats and ecosystems are lost.  The reclamation process does not fully restore mountain ecosystems (Wood et al 2010). In fact, reclamation procedures fall far short of creating anything resembling a functional ecosystem.  The valley fill process heavily pollutes streams, contaminating the drinking water of coalfield residents with arsenic, lead, mercury and other toxins ( The slurry compounds as well are highly toxic and a direct risk to public health as they are often next to communities and as in the case of Marsh Fork Elementary, directly above schools. Slurry leeches into the soil and bedrock of the Earth, further poisoning water supplies (SOCM 1992). Slurry containment’s also break, as in the spill event that occurred in Martin County, Kentucky. Here, a slurry impound owned by Massey Energy broke, spilling an estimated 306,000,000 gallons of toxic material into the tributaries and community below (Frazier 2003). In an era where new technology has been developed to build sustainable, long lasting alternative energy resources, it is imperative we move beyond coal (Nolt 2005).

Processes like MTR remove the miner from mining operations ( The industry does offer high wages but only to specialized labor. Conventional mining employed roughly 200 people per site, this has been reduced to 15 to 20 jobs per  MTR operation (Webb 2010). Communities exploited by MTR are economic ghost towns as strip mining is unattractive to outside business (Nace 2010). This has established a mono-economy in the coalfields where the coal industry is the main source of employment. The industry claim that reclaimed mine sites are utilized for economic development is false (Nace 2010). Though some golf courses, Walmart’s and (mostly) prisons have been built, the overwhelming majority of post mined MTR sites remain dormant. The coal industry breaks communities and leaves the Appalachian poor to deal with the burden of environmental, social and economic destruction (Nace 2010).

The True Cost of MTR

Coal, along with other fossil fuels, are the primary sources of energy for the United States. To date, fossil fuels provide 85% of the nations energy (DOE 2011).  Coal is the primary source of energy for our nation, providing over half of the electricity consumed by Americans (DOE 2009). On a global scale, the United States has the largest known reserves of bituminous and anthracite coal (Blackburn 1996). The recovery of coal reserves, however, is a controversial issue between environmental, economic and social groups and the coal industry (Blackburn 1996). Perhaps the most noted environmental implication of strip mining is the disturbance of freshwater resources and long-term detrimental effects to watersheds (Pile 1984).

mtr_2To date, over 520 mountains have been decimated by MTR. Our regulatory agencies have taken no steps to measure the full extent of the damage done so no maps are available of the impact ( However, with the help of Google Earth technology and the work of the West Virginia Highlands Association in building the website, it is estimated that 700,000 acres of temperate Appalachian forests throughout West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee have been destroyed (  As a result, more than 7% of Appalachian forests have been timbered and over 1,200 miles of streams across the region have been buried and polluted from 1985 to 2001 – data from the following decade + is hard to come by as industry has made the practice incredibly secretive. MTR, if continued unabated, will cause a projected loss of more than 1.4 million acres, an area approximately three times the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ( Destruction of this magnitude will severely impact freshwater communities, terrestrial wildlife and avian species.

Streams throughout Appalachian coalfields are being chemically monitored. Scientists have found increases in conductivity, hardness, arsenic, sulfate, mercury, lead, selenium and other harmful concentrations downstream from MTR operations ( The process has destroyed and fragmented great patch sizes of deciduous forest (Shummar 2009), a leading cause of bio-diversity loss, occurring in one of the most biologically diverse areas on the entire planet.

There are still permits on the table that will affect even more critical habitat. Though this will hold drastic consequences for future generations, it is directly effecting the rural Appalachian poor today. Appalachian people are directly tied to their mountains. MTR, and surface mining in general, is poisoning local water supplies, poisoning topsoil and divorcing the people from their land (Gunnoe 2010). Rural communities can no longer safely drink their water, grow or gather their own food (Gunnoe 2010).  The mono economy created by the industry is forcing people to leave their communities, this has been described as “cultural genocide” by coalfield residents (Gunnoe 2010).

The Peoples Movement Against

The environmental, economic and social destruction of MTR has not gone unnoticed – people are fighting back. The leaders of this growing movement to end MTR are from the coalfields themselves. They are Maria Gunnoe, Bo Webb, Judy Bonds (who died at the age of 58 from cancer believed to be the result of exposure to toxins from MTR sites on January 3, 2011), Larry Gibson (who is also now deceased) and many others. Since the inception of MTR, these Appalachians have worked feverishly to expose the turmoil invoked by the mining technique. These leaders have invited people to their homes to gain first hand knowledge of the war happening in the coalfields. They have traveled across the region spreading the news of what is being allowed to happen. Because of these Appalachians, and others like them, a peoples movement against MTR has developed.

Over the years numerous citizen groups have formed. These groups are networking together to ban strip mining in Appalachia. Groups such as Appalachian Voices, Mountain Justice, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and many others have developed true grassroots movements across the region, greatly helping Appalachian communities and building a sense of urgency around the issue.

Appalachia-Rising-054Coalfield residents, nonprofit organizations and activists brought the movement to Washington DC in September of 2010 for Appalachia Rising. Appalachia Rising consisted of a two day seminar series, entitled “Voices From The Mountains” and a day of action ( The seminar brought participants together to discuss the impact that MTR has left on not only Appalachia, but the world ( Following the seminar, the day of action took place in the streets of DC. This day of action was the largest national protest against strip mining in the history of the struggle ( Civil disobedience was practiced, and arrests were made, furthering the rally to end MTR (Goodwin 2010).

A great deal of diversity was present during Appalachia Rising. Coalfield residents, coal miners, climate scientists, religious leaders, students, academics and many more gathered together on that day to demand an end to MTR ( The intellectual capacity was astounding and most of the people at the event were very knowledgeable not only about MTR but about politics, environmental science, economics and social justice. Appalachia Rising allowed people to bring interesting ideas to the forefront of the movement ( The movement against MTR is just as excitingly political as it is environmental. Fliers are being made, debates are happening, talks are being given and information is spreading.  It is a true peoples movement united around the preservation of cultural and natural Appalachia.

BlairMountainFollowing Appalachia Rising was the March on Blair Mountain. Hundreds of activists marched across the Appalachian region to honor the historic mountain, where the Battle of Blair Mountain occurred in 1921. The march marked one of the biggest civil uprisings in the United States history and the largest armed insurrection since the American Civil War andAppalachia Rising and Friends of Blair Mountain in an epic five day protest demanded and end to MTR. These are just a few examples of a historic movement to abolish MTR – and a part of the even larger Enviromental Justice movement growing world wide today.

The Appalachian movement has seen crushing defeats along its journey, but the social force has also garnished great triumphs.  Perhaps for the leaders from the coalfields, standing on the steps of the EPA and looking down across thousands of people from across the nation during Appalachia Rising is a moment they will remember as a turning point. The people, united, no matter their background, demanded mountain justice on that day. The voices from the foothills have invoked national concern and a great social movement. Though the practice of MTR is still being continued, the social movement now has momentum and the coal industry is now feeling the burden of years of protest.

An example of this can be found in the recent decision of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to veto the Spruce Mine Site, the single largest proposed MTR  site in West Virginia (Ward 2011). This veto is a result of ousted EPA leader Lisa Jackson’s policy to reduce the effects of MTR on the environment and throughout the coalfield communities of Appalachia. The EPA notes that these impacts are “pervasive and irreversible” (Ward 2011)  The proposed MTR site would have been a 2,300 acre mine site. The EPA noted they reviewed more than 50,000 public comments on the proposed site and held a major public hearing for the citizens of West Virginia (Ward 2011). EPA officially released a statement saying the agency is “acting under the law and using the best science available to protect water quality, wildlife and Appalachian communities who rely on clean waters for drinking, fishing and swimming” (Ward 2011). This is a huge victory for West Virginia and for all of those involved in the movement to abolish MTR.

The Role of Science in the Appalachian Movement

Conservation is a crisis dominated and mission oriented discipline. Scientists are currently conducting research to gather data over the environmental and social impacts of strip mining. As a community both social and natural scientists are building mounds of evidence that can be used to inform policy makers of the true impacts of coal mining. Scientists have been, and continue to be, an effective force in spreading information about the atrocities of strip mining, all while broadening the range of citizens who are concerned about the issue. Scientists are successfully communicating the biological importance of Appalachia in terms of the significance of her biodiversity and natural history. Conservationists are communicating to the public at large the social and moral responsibility to preserve critical habitats. Appalachia is home to numerous flora and fauna species of special concern and their survival is dependent upon the health of their ecosystems (Nolt 2005). The sciences are also humanizing the issue of strip mining by documenting and communicating with the public health concerns surrounding the issue.

Data collection and presenting facts is very effective in making the case against MTR. Scientists are examining coal and exploiting the dangers of the extractive resource from the cradle to the grave. Conservation science alone has built a mound of evidence of the devastation that habitat depletion, destruction and fragmentation do to both aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity. Extensive evidence has been brought to the forefront generating public concern over the role coal plays in climate change (Nace 2010).

Understanding and scientifically dissecting the legal process is very important as well. Scientists can critically examine coal as an energy resource and critique the legislation that makes  strip mining legal. Using scientific evidence to expose the shortcomings and devastation of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the midnight rulings of the Bush Administration will build public consensus for truly protective environmental considerations. The most important role of science is perhaps the effective promotion of sustainable energy solutions to end our dependency on coal. This communication will continue to throw wrenches into the machine that is MTR. Scientists need to remain active and present facts of the environmental, economic and social impacts of coal extraction.

Moving Forward: The Case for the Cerulean

A6-THEBIR_TH_C_^_THURSDAYThere is an abundance of completed and ongoing research initiatives that state the Cerulean is in danger of extinction, some projections state it will cease to exist within 20 to 30 years (Bullock 2007).  Research also indicates that the warbler is area specific, and though may maintain a moderate population now, breeding success rates must be taken into consideration for sustaining the population (Boves 2010). Ongoing anthropogenic land use is destroying critical breeding habitat, thus jeopardizing the future of the species.

Throughout the last several hundred years landscapes throughout Appalachia have been in a constant state of change due to natural resource extraction throughout the biome (Shummar 2009). The regional and local ramifications of habitat loss/alteration and the continual fragmentation of Appalachian forests are among the most important factors contributing to the reduction of migratory bird populations (O’Conner et al. 1996, Sauer et al. 2008). These combined factors increase the probability of local specie extinctions and will lead to the overall reduction of forest species richness (Boulinier et al. 1998). Furthermore, anthropogenic demands for fuels and other natural resources are growing. Throughout the Central and Southern Appalachian region, coal, natural gas and timber products are all important industries (Shummar, 2009). The extraction of these resources has the ability to create temporal changes in vegetation that have the potential to displace or eliminate avian communities (Shummar 2009).

MTR and valley fill greatly reduces the forested habitat necessary for the CERW (Weakland 2002).  After such events, ridge top habitat is destroyed and lower habitats are greatly fragmented, drastically reducing available land suitable for successful breeding for the bird species (Weakland, 2002). Generally, data indicates that:

Cerulean Warblers are negatively affected by mountaintop mining from loss of forested habitat, particularly ridge tops, and from degradation of remaining forests as evidenced by lower territory density in fragmented forests and lower territory density closer to mine edges.

Multiple layers of coal are removed from the mountains and the contour mines are reclaimed according to the rules and regulations of SMCRA. The regulations enforced under SMCRA in regards to soil compaction impede forest regeneration, this problem is then exacerbated by the use of non-native grass feed used during the process of reclamation (Beachy 2008). In regards to MTR, CERW’s still nest around reclaimed sites but the breeding success rate has steeply declined and they have not responded well to the hard edge placed on their habitat (brood parasitism, hotter temperatures, etc). There are fewer abundances of CERW’s in areas adjacent to reclaimed mine sites than in areas adjacent to clear cuts or older successional gaps. The reduction of CERW population in these areas represents a significant threat to the species as these mining operations drastically alter their historic range (Beachy 2008).

The National Park Conservation Association (NPCA) has noted the importance of crucial habitat in MTR territory. The NPCA conducted its own study of song birds  and filed a petition to have core habitats deemed unsuitable for mine use (NPCA 2005). Again the study makes a blatant plea for the Cerulean’s based on scientific research. The Cerulean is of special interest in this petition because it is listed as a “Species of Continental Importance” and they are rapidly declining throughout their entire range (NPCA 2005). Surface mining in the Cumberland Mountains of east Tennessee alone will continue to devastate the populations of these rare migratory birds by drastically reducing habitat needed for breeding. The Cerulean population is also at risk to the continual forest fragmentation of their habitat (NPCA 2005). The CERW, in fact, is the species most affected by the landscape alteration of strip mining. The petition states:

Surface mining in the Appalachian coal region will accelerate this trend (species decline) in coming years. Cerulean’s preferentially nest on the forested ridge tops that    are leveled by surface mining. Because similar habitat loss throughout its range has   contributed to a precipitous decline in Cerulean Warbler populations, the continued viability of the Cerulean Warbler would be threatened by surface mining in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. (NPCA 2005)

There is also attention drawn to the fact that 20% of the remaining CERW population will be eliminated if permits are issued allowing proposed strip mining sites in Tennessee (NPCA 2005). The study then goes on to say that the sites cannot be reclaimed at a rate fast enough to preserve the CERW population (NPCA 2005).

The Case for an Ecological Consideration

MTR has a long history in Appalachia and in recent years arguments both for and against are growing increasingly heated. Since the 1970s, 500 miles worth of mountains have been leveled by the mining technique and waste from this process has added toxic pollutants to over 2000 miles worth of Appalachian waters. We the people demand not only environmental, but economic and social justice to all of Appalachia, especially in regards to her poor. Moving away from standard requirements of the CWA and ESA and using a model that emphasizes overall habitat protection, landscape ecology and ecosystem sustainability is necessary to protect the unique and rich biodiversity that is such a treasure to this region.  In promoting such a habitat model the environmental, economic and social atrocities of MTR, and extractive industries in general, will eventually be forced to an end.

Before the Cerulean warbler population declines to the point that extinction is inevitable, the recent studies from academic/civic institutions need to be taken into consideration for the conservation of the species. The Appalachian highlands and mesic cove forests throughout the biome require protection to preserve the existence of the charismatic songbird. The inclusion of the species to the ESA will protect our Appalachian highlands, forests and freshwater systems. CERW protection will offer support to all flora and fauna throughout the region, notably protecting our truly rare freshwater communities. Protecting the songbird will not only be a step forward in the preservation of biodiversity, but will also help protect the rural communities that are burdened by strip mining. Preserving the Cerulean warbler is a moral and social responsibility.

The CERW is not alone in its plight. We are in the midst of Earth’s sixth greatest extinction crisis. As a result of human activity ecosystems and natural systems are greatly changing, so much so that talks of a new geologic era have started to become mainstream: The Anthropocene. The fossil fuel industry is destructive and unsustainable, MTR is just one of many examples. The fossil fuel industry also has a monopoly on the world economy. As the challenges that face humanity are indeed great, one must question why our “national interest” still lies in an “above all” energy policy. One must question why so much wealth has been extracted from the Appalachian coalfields but the communities there are so poor. One must question why the largest consumer of fossil fuels is great militarized nation states. One must question why such an extinction crisis is occurring. One must question the pervasive influence of the corporate monopoly on the peoples democracy. One must stand up for themselves, their community, their consensus and yes, even their biodiversity. We are all mortal.



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