Jim Deacon, pioneering desert fish biologist, dies

But the concept of saving big places through little animals lives on.


How you view Jim Deacon depends on where you fall on the political spectrum. If you lean right, Deacon personifies everything wrong with American environmentalism — a scientist-cum-activist whose research helped prompt the federal government to spend tons of money and halt development in favor of an unexceptional little fish that offers no value to the economy, human health or even recreation. 

But if you lean left, Deacon was a hero. The former University of Nevada Las Vegas biologist — who died last week at age 80 — was the foremost authority on fish that make their home in the most unlikely and inhospitable of places: the Mojave Desert. Deacon’s specialty was the Devils Hole pupfish, an iridescent minnow that’s carved out a niche existence in a salty, 92-degree pool at the edge of Death Valley in western Nevada.

UNLV professor James Deacon in 2009 at annual Thesis Presentations at the Department of Environmental Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services
Yet what secured Deacon’s spot in the pantheon of Western environmental history wasn’t his scientific renown — it was his unorthodox pairing of science and activism. Deacon’s research, and the vigor with which he defended it in court, helped land the Devils Hole pupfish on the Endangered Species list in 1967, and in 1976 convinced the Supreme Court to restrict a nearby cattle ranch from pumping groundwater that would deplete the Devils Hole aquifer, where the entire Devils Hole pupfish population lives. The case marked the first time the court put the needs of a fish above the needs of a group of humans, and it set the stage for a schism that’s as divisive today as it was 40 years ago.

Environmental groups like the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity continue to lean heavily on the foundation laid by Deacon. Kierán Suckling, co-founder and executive director, says that while the Devils Hole pupfish set a legal precedent and gave federal agencies the authority to rein in groundwater pumping across the Southwest, its bigger impact was in the cultural realm: It taught him and other activists that “when species are on the edge of extinction and negotiations have failed, you don’t just walk away. You go to the courts.”

Hitting the courts continues to be Suckling’s go-to move. The Center for Biological Diversity has successfully litigated on behalf of more than 500 species, but their strategy — which by now has been woven into environmental regulations across the country — has earned scorn from those who believe the rights of humans trump the rights of fish. Last month, for instance, when California rejected requests to allocate more water to farmers in the drought-starved Central Valley, the Wall Street Journal slammed the state for letting much-needed water flow to the ocean simply because some “regulator fretted about hypothetical risks to fish.” Consciously or not, that regulator was paying homage to Jim Deacon. 

And then there’s the mark Deacon left on the pupfish itself. While his work to save the fish is celebrated in some circles as a watershed moment in environmental history, others question its value in today’s political landscape. Despite being one of the first species protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Devils Hole pupfish population has shrunk from 544 to just 65 adults — all of which are kept alive through daily feedings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In 2013, the agency spent $4.5 million to open the world’s only desert pupfish breeding facility; soon after, they reported that the first Devils Hole pupfish born in captivity were thriving. 

To anyone concerned about living in a world where dozens of species go extinct every day, the fact that we could save even one sounds like great news. But in an era of mass extinctions, even some environmentalists wonder whether it makes sense to expend so many resources on a highly specialized fish whose existence was fairly precarious to begin with. Even under the best conditions, Devils Hole can only support about 600 individuals, and 50,000 years of inbreeding in an isolated desert spring may have compromised the fish’s genetic resiliency

But those who ascribe to Deacon’s philosophy — that life, especially in its rarest forms, is worthy of protection — will continue to fight for the pupfish, and through it, for aquatic ecosystems across the Southwest. And even in his absence, the idea of saving big ecosystems through little species will continue to reverberate.

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News. 

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