A few years ago, I traveled with eleven classmates around the American West, studying public land management, ecology, and people’s relationships with the land. Seven essays emerged from the dust and heat. Ever since I wrote them, I’ve wanted to refine them for a general audience, smoothing out the edges created under the pressure of graduation.
During the final days of writing—in between sessions hunched over my laptop editing furiously—I spoke on the phone with a rancher we met in eastern Oregon. He read a draft of one essay before we discussed the details of irrigation and BLM regulations. Then he told me, “you have to share this with people. A lot could learn from it.”
I told him I would. Here’s the first installment.
The town of Shoshone, California, population 31, lies between the border of Death Valley National Park and the Nevada state line. A saloon is the only business open after 6pm. Across the street, flashing light bulbs advertise LIQUOR and SOUVENIRS. The gas station sells the usual roadside conveniences along with Indian crafts and sparkling geodes. Not much else exists in Shoshone, only a little high school, a handful of homes, and the campground where I spent the night.
I unzipped the tent and walked across the yellow-green lawn. A kingfisher flushed from a wire as I approached a few small ponds. Their algae-scummed water would only fill four plastic kiddy pools.
Listening to dogs barking in a nearby backyard, a lawn mower wheezing in another yard, and semi-trucks rumbling on the highway out of town, I thought: this is not what I imagined as the last remaining habitat of a once-extinct fish.
Around forty 2-inch-long fish swam before me. It’s hard to count the shiny guppy-sized pupfish as they wiggle, poke, and hide in their green algae. But after a few moments, I could recognize the silver-blue male pupfish that guarded their territory, darting and chasing, resembling playful puppies—their namesake behavior. These territorial males actively defended their worldly possession, precious patches of phytoplankton.
Although they resemble feeder goldfish, pupfish are among the most endangered species in the United States. Only thirty years ago, the species of pupfish in pools before me was believed extinct. That is, until 1986 when a researcher miraculously found 70 Shoshone pupfish in a drainage ditch. Jumping into action, the researcher developed a partnership between the state wildlife agency, the federal Bureau of Land Management, local environmental groups, and a private landowner with a desert spring and a willingness to help. The ditch-fish were moved into an isolated spring-fed pool on the landowner’s private property.
Even after their salvation, the Shoshone pupfish swam perilously close to extinction. A single mishap could have wiped out their genetic record forever. Then one almost did. The water level began to drop. The partnership swiftly responded, raising money to expand the pupfish habitat which now consists of a series of man-made streams and pools, constantly fed with circulating water and regularly cleaned.
In all, the size of their habitat is not much larger than the swimming pool at the campground only a few steps away. But that small amount of care was enough for the Shoshone pupfish to rise from the ditches to thrive with a present-day population in the thousands.
But the Shoshone pupfish’s success is not the whole story. They are only one of over a hundred species of pupfish. And they are one of the lucky ones. How did these pupfish get trapped in these desert puddles? How did the guppy-sized fish find itself at the center of a modern jobs-versus-environment controversy? For the answers, we must begin by looking back thousands of years.
Continue reading “Any Room for a Pupfish in the Desert?”