Any Room for a Pupfish in the Desert?

Butterfly in Death Valley

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.

Shoshone Pupfish

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.

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.

Fossil Fish

Following the last Ice Age, ancient lakes in present-day Nevada and Utah rivaled today’s Great Lakes. As the climate changed overtime, the prehistoric lakes shrank into smaller and smaller ponds, soon becoming isolated desert lakes or springs. The Great Salt Lake is the largest of these remnants, but most are small seeps. Much of the intermountain West is old lakebed. Swimming in those ancient lakes: the pupfish’s ancestor. 

As those lakes shrank, they separated into smaller lakes and pools. Over thousands of years, groups of the pupfish ancestors split off, each group of proto-pupfish slowly adapting to the conditions in their own pool. Land emerged around and in between bands of pupfish. Each band evolved to be genetically unique from their cousins. For example, modern Shoshone pupfish adapted to water temperatures between 72 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other pieces of those ancient lakes still exists, but now in the form of vast underground storage reservoirs called aquifers. The Death Valley area aquifer supplies the last surface water to pupfish in Shoshone. Nearly all the water in this vast underground aquifer fell onto Earth thousands of years ago. Infrequent desert rainfall rarely soaks through layers of the parched and cracked soil, so the aquifer is almost never recharged locally with fresh rain water. For this reason, the pupfish are sometimes referred to as “fossil fish,” fish dependent on rain that fell to Earth thousands of years ago.  

death valley national park
A walk to a spring in Death Valley National Park.

As the Desert Bloomed

From the postwar era into the 1980s, the Death Valley area experienced a boom. New homes were built and new farms were sown. A few commercial agriculture businesses hatched plans to pump groundwater to irrigate tens of thousands of acres each. Developers even designed a city to rise up from the dust, plotting out 34,000 suburban homes, an airport, hotels, and shopping centers.

This period of growth took at least one species off the face of the Earth. In 1965, two springs only a few miles south of Shoshone were re-channeled for a bathhouse to serve the influx of people. With temperature of up to 110 degrees, these hot tub-like springs were the homewaters of the Tecopa pupfish for the previous 9,000 years (give or take a few thousand). But within five years of the new spa, the changes to the water flow killed off all the pupfish. The species vanished at least a year before Congress managed to include them on the Endangered Species List. In 1978 the Tecopa pupfish was the first species to be removed from that list because of its confirmed extinction. The bathhouse closed less than five years after the last Tecopa pupfish perished.

In the desert, water is a scarce and valuable resource. Every living thing has adapted strategies to acquire and keep water. As water-intensive development expands, the amount available decreases for everyone. No scientist knows how much water the aquifer holds or when it will run out.

The declining water in desert springs and seeps that followed the postwar boom gave the pupfish less room to swim and raised the temperature in the pupfish’s pools. Stressed by high temperatures, less dissolved oxygen, or water that completely dried up, pupfish’s thousands of years of evolution and adaptation was overwhelmed by the new wells withdrawing thousands of gallons of Death Valley aquifer fossil water. 

The shrinking of the Death Valley aquifer affected more than the humble pupfish. The Mojave Desert, where Shoshone and Death Valley are located, hosts the highest concentration of endemic species in North America—plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. Rare concentrations of endemics thrive in areas like Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.

A refuge that protects the largest remaining Mojave Desert oasis, about 30 miles north of Shoshone, Ash Meadows supplies precious water to 26 endemic types of plants and animals. These rare lifeforms evolved through the same processes as the pupfish: a transition from lush prehistoric lakes to desert oases forced them into isolation. The most varied and highly protected of these endemics is the pupfish.

devils hole valley
The view south from Devils Hole.

Devils Hole Pupfish

In the desert, life is dependent on water. But no life is more dependent on dwindling freshwater than the Devils Hole pupfish.

I stood cramped under a veil of chain-link fencing, looking down into a limestone cavern in Ash Meadows Valley. The entire living population of another unique pupfish swam in a hole 15 feet below. Devils Hole surfaces in an opening about the size of a school bus. Covered by a rocky overhang, it never sees direct sunlight. As a 500-foot deep natural well extending to the 100-mile-long aquifer buried deep underground, Devils Hole is so deep that it has never been fully explored by scuba divers, though a few have died trying. 

Devils Hole has high security protection. Cameras, barbed-wire, a tunnel-like section of overhead fencing (to prevent throwing objects into the pool), advanced weather stations, water level gauges, and water temperature monitors, not to mention ample signage—these safety measures all guard the remaining Devils Hole pupfish. Like their Shoshone cousins, the Devils Hole pupfish thrive in waters unbearably warm for other fish, about 92 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because it protrudes deep into the Earth, Devils Hole is jolted by quakes around the world. When I visited, a devastating earthquake had hit Mexico City only weeks prior, causing 5-foot sloshing swells in Devils Hole. A few months ago, the 7.1-magnitude Reidgecrest earthquake in California caused 10-foot tsunamis in Devils Hole. Biologists think the adult pupfish survived the tumult by swimming deep into protected caves, reemerging when the shaking settled. It turns out the pupfish started swimming for cover before seismologists even knew the earthquake was coming. Juvenile pupfish that couldn’t swim deep enough to escape died.

If that situation doesn’t sound dire enough, the Devils Hole pupfish rely on a shallow rock shelf for feeding and breeding, a shelf that sits a mere dozen inches below the water’s surface. If the water level drops too low, the shelf could be exposed, leaving the pupfish without food or shelter. Earthquake wave action strips the shelf of algae and eggs. After earthquakes, federal biologists sometimes recompense the pupfish with feeders until their natural shelf algae grows back. 

The National Park Service gained management of Devils Hole in 1952 when President Harry Truman protected forty acres around the cavern as a national monument, specifically mentioning the scientific interest of the pupfish in his declaration.

But by the 1980s, the Mojave Desert was blooming. A pastoral transformation converted tens of thousands of acres of bone-dry desert into farms and ranches suckled from the dwindling ancient aquifer. At the same time as the nearby Shoshone pupfish were relocated to expanded pools because of dropping water levels, the State of Nevada granted ranchers new water rights to pump from the aquifer that most directly supplied Devils Hole. The National Park Service protested. 

As legal conflict between the National Park Service and the ranch rose to the Supreme Court, local tensions also escalated. The pupfish became a symbol of frivolous environmentalism like the spotted owl of the Timber Wars. Many saw the pupfish as diametrically opposed to lush irrigated fields and new homes. News media broadcast the issue nationwide while “save the pupfish” and “kill the pupfish” bumper stickers advertised individuals’ opinions in towns near Devils Hole. 

In a 1976 ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously decided that, by setting aside Devils Hole to protect the pupfish, President Truman and the federal government also set aside enough water to keep the pupfish alive in Devils Hole. By default, the National Park Service had an earlier claim to groundwater than the ranch. The pupfish came first.

This unprecedented decision gives the Devils Hole pupfish and other animals reliant on the Death Valley area groundwater like the nearby Shoshone pupfish some protection, but they are not completely safe. The New York Times reported in 2008 that the Devils Hole pupfish were again nearing the brink of extinction. Water levels in Devils Hole continued to drop because of increasing development as far away as Las Vegas. Any unexpected mishaps—water or earthquake related—could still destroy large portions of their pupfish’s already small population.

When I visited, the Devils Hole pupfish population was allegedly stable, numbering in the hundreds. But looking in from the protected walkway, it is impossible to even see any pupfish for yourself.

Security at Devils Hole.

Playing God at Devils Hole

To fence and monitor the Devils Hole pupfish, the park service allocates $350,000 a year. This measure of protection is in part a reaction to angry townspeople who still feel that they should have the right to extract the water that the pupfish need to survive. (Recently, some drunks threw trash and swam naked in Devils Hole, killing at least one pupfish, necessitating the security cameras and new and improved fencing.) When the government decides who gets water and who doesn’t, the division between wildlife protection and local economic development becomes stark. 

The unusual nature of the Death Valley region, with a high percentage of rare and endemic species combined with an already harsh and unforgiving environment, leaves little room for error and makes it one of the most susceptible places in the country to species’ extinctions. It clearly illustrates the impact of a wantonly sprawling and consumptive culture, one that has few measures for recycling water and conserving its use, especially for a place that has very little water to offer in the first place. 

Do pupfish also have a right to that water? If we take it all, all pupfish could go extinct and the impact to human life would be un-measurable. You could even argue it would make human life better. Pupfish are holding back progress. They’re keeping the desert from flourishing.

Closing my eyes, I imagined the feelings of those with the “KILL THE PUPFISH” bumper stickers, the ones angry at the Endangered Species Act, angry at environmentalists and government regulations and not having the freedom to do what they want. That frustration is logical. But it doesn’t feel morally defensible. It feels myopic, self-centered, entitled. It’s a mode of thinking that demonstrates the selfishness of valuing nature only as something that provides economic value—or revokes it. I don’t want to indulge in a society that makes decisions on that basis alone, decisions based on expectations of reward, of “always getting what I want,” of sacrificing the long view for selfish short-term benefit. It’s a bleak prospect.

As conservation biologist Michael Soulé states, “species have value in themselves, a value neither conferred nor revocable, but springing…from the mere fact of its existence.” Bees, weeds, lizards, wildflowers, birds, pupfish—every living thing—has reason to exist, regardless of what humans think, regardless of what benefits they may or may not give humanity. Before valuing animals for the benefits they provide to us petty humans, we should value them because they, like us, are part of this wonderful, wild, and weird world. They’re one part of the place we call home. 

As nature writer Richard Conniff concluded: 

Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless. They are useless in the sense that they do nothing more than raise our spirits, make us laugh or cry, frighten, disturb and delight us. They connect us not just to what’s weird, different, other, but to a world where we humans do not matter nearly as much as we like to think.

And that should be enough.

In the Mojave, we had the choice between more ranches, more farms, more houses, more of the same—or preserving the last remaining pupfish, a unique form of life found nowhere else on the planet. We have the power to kill every pupfish in an instant if we chose to; therefore, we have even more reason to do everything in our power to protect them from that fate. 

In the United States and across the globe, humans have time and time again wielded their immense power to our own benefit. We transformed the face of the planet with agriculture and engineering, exploring the deep seas and going to the moon and beyond.

We’ve had many fewer opportunities to restrain that power for the benefit of others. To learn the value of caution, care, and humility. In their own way, pupfish can be a kind of reality check. By restraining humanity’s consumption of natural resources, forcing us to conserve and recycle and keep consumption to a level that can sustain the pupfish, we’re protecting ourselves too. By taking responsibility upon ourselves to make the world a better place, not just for humans, but for all living things, we make it better for everything, including ourselves.

The Fate of a Fish

Walking that landscaped trail to the edge of that unassuming pond, I had difficulty picturing the dramatic changes of our planet’s past. Still, I sat there as the sun, finally rising above the eastern hills, threw its early morning rays onto willows, palm trees, and the green algae growing on the surface of the tiny pool at my feet. I peered down at the fish which swam unaware of me, unaware of the world outside their bowl, simply doing their evolutionary duty.

I was struck by the fragility of the lifeforms before me; and at the same time, I saw their resilience. I looked in, hoping to gain some knowledge of myself in that pool, hoping to see the past and future more clearly, hoping to gain inspiration—for no matter how uncertain the future is for me, for humans as a whole, time will march on, and against all odds even the pupfish are still here, still swimming.

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