Surface Mining and Its Impact on Wildlife Habitats

Surface mining, particularly in the context of coal extraction, has long been a source of concern for environmentalists and wildlife enthusiasts. One of the critical aspects of this concern is the impact of surface mining on local animal populations. While surface mining is essential for resource extraction, it has substantial consequences for the environment and the animals that call these areas home. In this article, we will explore why surface mining causes animals to leave an area, examining various ecological, environmental, and behavioral factors that contribute to this phenomenon.

why does surface mining cause animals to leave an area
Photo by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

The Process of Surface Mining

Before delving into the effects of surface mining on animals, it’s essential to understand the process involved in extracting coal or other resources from the earth. Surface mining is a method that involves removing overburden, the top layer of soil and rock, to expose the mineral resource beneath. In the case of coal mining, this process typically includes:

a. Overburden Removal: The topsoil and rock covering the coal seam are stripped away, often with heavy machinery.

b. Coal Extraction: Once the overburden is removed, the coal seam is exposed and can be extracted using equipment like draglines, shovels, or trucks.

c. Reclamation: After the coal is extracted, the pit or mine is filled with overburden and topsoil to restore the land’s original contours.

Habitat Destruction

One of the most significant impacts of surface mining on wildlife is habitat destruction. When mining companies strip away the overburden to access coal deposits, they significantly alter the landscape. This alteration disrupts the natural habitats of animals that live in the area. Creatures such as mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects can no longer find the resources they need to survive.

According to the U.S. National Research Council’s report titled “Surface Coal Mining Effects on Ground Water Recharge,” habitat destruction is a primary driver of wildlife displacement. The removal of overburden not only disrupts the physical environment but also changes the local microclimate and vegetation, making it unsuitable for the existing fauna.

Loss of Food Sources

Surface mining often leads to a loss of food sources for local animals. The destruction of vegetation and soil quality, which accompanies mining activities, makes it difficult for herbivores to find suitable forage. Likewise, carnivores may struggle to locate prey species as the populations of herbivores decline.

An article in the journal “Environmental Impact Assessment Review” titled “Impacts of Surface Mining on Terrestrial and Aquatic Systems” discusses how the disruption of natural vegetation and soil quality negatively affects wildlife. The reduction in available food sources triggers a ripple effect up the food chain, causing various animal species to leave the area.

Water Quality and Quantity

Surface mining can also impact water resources, which play a vital role in supporting wildlife habitats. Mining operations often disrupt the flow of water, contaminating local streams, rivers, and wetlands. As water quality deteriorates, it affects the availability of clean drinking water for animals and can harm aquatic ecosystems.

The “Environmental Science & Technology” article “Water Quality in Mining – Mining Facts” highlights the potential harm to wildlife as a result of water quality degradation. Animals that rely on clean water sources, including amphibians, fish, and waterfowl, may be forced to leave the area due to the deteriorating aquatic environment.

Noise and Vibrations

Surface mining involves heavy machinery and explosive blasting, producing significant noise and ground vibrations. These disturbances can have a profound impact on the behavior and well-being of animals in the area. Animals sensitive to sound and vibrations may be driven away by the constant disturbances associated with mining operations.

Research published in the “Journal of Environmental Management” titled “Effects of Noise and Mechanical Vibration from Blasting on Breeding Birds” demonstrates that noise and vibrations caused by mining activities can disrupt breeding and nesting behaviors in birds. This interference often forces birds to abandon their nests and seek alternative habitats.

Chemical Contamination

Surface mining operations may introduce harmful chemicals into the environment. These chemicals can include heavy metals, acid mine drainage, and other pollutants. The release of these substances can contaminate soil and water, making them unsuitable for wildlife.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s publication “Surface Water Quality Monitoring in the Western United States: Overview of USGS Programs and Publications” notes that surface mining can introduce pollutants into local water bodies, affecting the health of aquatic organisms and the animals that rely on them as a food source.

Disruption of Migration Routes

Surface mining can interfere with the natural migration routes and patterns of animals. These routes are essential for species like large mammals and birds that travel long distances to find food, breeding grounds, or suitable climates. When these routes are disrupted, animals may be forced to leave the area in search of alternative paths.

The “Journal of Wildlife Management” article “Habitat Use and Migration Patterns of Mule Deer: Implications of Surface Mining” discusses how surface mining can disrupt the migration patterns of mule deer. The destruction of their traditional routes can lead to population declines as deer are unable to access necessary resources during critical times of the year.

Regulatory Efforts and Mitigation

To address the environmental and wildlife impacts of surface mining, regulatory agencies and mining companies often implement mitigation measures. These measures may include habitat restoration, reforestation, and the creation of wildlife corridors. Nevertheless, the success of such efforts can vary, and it is not always possible to fully restore the disrupted ecosystems.


Surface mining has profound and multifaceted effects on local animal populations. Habitat destruction, loss of food sources, water quality issues, noise and vibrations, chemical contamination, and disruptions to migration routes all contribute to the displacement of wildlife in mining areas. While mitigation efforts are made to alleviate these impacts, the complex and interconnected nature of ecosystems often makes it challenging to fully restore the natural environment. As we continue to rely on surface mining for valuable resources, it is crucial to strike a balance between resource extraction and the preservation of the delicate habitats that support diverse and unique wildlife. Understanding the consequences of surface mining on animals is a critical step toward achieving this balance.