The mystery of Death Valley’s missing pupfish

 

Updated 3/12/12 3:01 p.m.

The Devil's Hole pupfish is arguably one of the cooler species around. These tiny iridescent blue fish, just a bit over an inch long, live in one place only, a deep pool in the Amargosa Valley of west Nevada, in a place called Ash Meadows, an outpost of California's Death Valley National Park. The pool, which is about 8 feet wide and 35 feet long, appears a clear and light blue where a flat rock shelf runs just below its surface, deepening to dark turquoise where the shelf drops off. No one knows how deep the pool is; divers have gone 435 down and not hit bottom. "I like to think of Devil's Hole, when you're looking at it, as a window into the aquifer," says Kevin Wilson, an ecologist and manager of Death Valley's Devil's Hole program, which is jointly run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nevada Department of Wildlife, and the National Park Service.

The water body is not what biologists would consider a welcoming habitat. Its average temperature is 93 degrees, and since it is so still, lacking an outlet where moving water mixes with air, it is oxygen deprived, with about one-third as much oxygen as the average desert spring, says Wilson. Scientists have been keeping watch over these pupfish, one of the most imperiled species in the world, since before the Endangered Species Act was passed. One of the first threats was groundwater pumping from the aquifer feeding the hole in the Amargosa Valley; after a long court battle, the government secured senior water rights protecting the pupfish and their pool in 1976. When the ESA was passed in 1973, pupfish were one of the first species listed.

The Devil's Hole is protected by a chain link fence. Visitors to the site can only view the hole from inside a long steel cage, which starts inside the fencing and leads out to a viewing platform over the small canyon holding the pool.

But despite all this protection, in the 1990s, the pupfish population, which is counted each spring and fall and had hovered in the range of 200-500 individuals (there are always fewer in the spring, and more in the fall), began to dwindle. The counts kept getting slowly lower, year after year. Some years they'd bounce back up, but the general trend went down, down, down. And then, in the spring of 2006, biologists on their spring dive counted only 38 pupfish.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...