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Fish that inspired Endangered Species Act is on the brink

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK The last place anyone would expect to
find fish is Devil's Hole, a chasm in the middle of the Mojave Desert
where a 100-degree day is mild and the only thing bigger than the
rocky expanse of desert is the sky above it.

But nature is nothing if not amazing as good an explanation as
any of how the Devil's Hole pupfish has survived in the bottomless
geothermal pool that gave the fish its name. It is tiny, just an inch
long, yet few species loom so large in the history of American
environmentalism.

The Devil's Hole pupfish is one of the rarest animals in the world.
The seemingly endless effort to save it laid the foundation for the
Endangered Species Act and shaped Western water policy a generation
ago with a landmark Supreme Court ruling.

But after 20,000 years in the desert, the fish teeters on the edge
of extinction. No more than 42 remain in Devil's Hole.

The Devil's Hole pupfish has been the beneficiary of one of the
most aggressive campaigns ever to preserve a species, an effort every
bit as intense as those to save the bald eagle and California condor.
But saving the pupfish is more than a legal obligation for the
biologists and bureaucrats involved.

It's a moral one.

``This fish is the species that made us take note of our need for
conservation,'' said Mike Bower, a National Park Service fish
biologist. ``It made us realize that our actions have an impact beyond
us. We have a responsibility to look after this fish.''

No one knows why they are vanishing. No one knows what it might say
about the health of the desert. And no one knows whether they can be
saved.

Devil's Hole is just that a hole on the side of a hill
overlooking an oasis called Ash Meadows. It's about the size of a
mineshaft and looks about as interesting.

But beneath the surface lies a limestone labyrinth filled with
crystal-clear water that fell as rain eons ago. A diver once descended
to 450 feet, and researchers once sent a camera 100 feet beyond that.
It keeps going from there. How far is anyone's guess.

Yet the pupfish spend most of their time foraging and spawning on a
rock shelf just below the surface of the water. They live in almost
complete isolation in alkaline, 93-degree water that contains very
little oxygen. They feed on algae, snails and other tiny invertebrates
in what is one of the world's smallest ecosystems.

The Devil's Hole pupfish is the oldest of the seven pupfish species
each named for where it's found remaining in Death Valley, but
no one knew it was there until the 1890s. Forty years passed before
biologist Joseph Wales realized it was a unique species related to,
but different from, the others.

Devil's Hole pupfish have larger heads and slimmer bodies than
their cousins in Ash Meadows and elsewhere, and they lack the pelvic
fins and stripes the others have. Males are bright blue. Females are a
yellowish shade of brown. They dart about like puppies, hence the
name, and if any fish can be said to have a personality, it's the
pupfish.

``It's the best example of charismatic microfauna,'' said Jim
Deacon, a retired University of Nevada at Las Vegas biology professor
who has spent more than 40 years studying the animal. ``It's so darn
cute. It's a beautiful fish.''

The campaign to save the fish began in the 1940s when two
biologists suggested making Devil's Hole a part of Death Valley
National Park. President Harry Truman did just that in 1952. A locked
fence was erected about a decade later after two teenage divers got
lost in the labyrinth and drowned. Their bodies were never found.

As Nevada grew and demand for water mounted, so did concern for the
pupfish. It was among the first species protected by the Endangered
Species Protection Act of 1966.

Concern turned to panic in the late 1960s when a landowner started
pumping water from the aquifer that feeds Devil's Hole. The water
level dropped precipitously, threatening to expose the rock shelf
essential to the survival of the pupfish.

As the water level fell, so did the number of pupfish. By 1972,
only 124 remained.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved a handful to a tank near
Hoover Dam to prevent losing the species entirely. Conservationists
sued to stop pumping from the aquifer.

President Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act of 1973,
expanding the protection of listed species to include ``the ecosystems
upon which they depend.'' And the government created a task force to
save the pupfish.

In 1976, the Supreme Court unanimously sided with conservationists
and validated the Endangered Species Act when it ruled that
water could be drawn from Amargosa Desert Ground Water Basin, but the
Devil's Hole pupfish is entitled to the water it needs to survive.

The rock shelf has remained submerged beneath an average of 15.7
inches of water ever since.

The impact was immediate.

As the water level rose, so did the number of pupfish. It averaged
324 through the mid-1990s.

The fall population has topped 500 on a few occasions and hit 582
an all-time high in 1994.

At long last, it looked like the pupfish might make it.

Then, starting in 1996, they began to disappear.

Pupfish have no predators. There was no evidence of an invasion by
a nonnative species. No sign the water had been polluted. Nothing to
suggest the ecosystem had been degraded in any way. Everyone was
stumped.

Experts have a few theories.

Rain washes dirt and gravel onto the rock shelf and seismic
activity settles it, creating nooks and crannies that provide shelter
for pupfish larvae and harbor the algae pupfish eat. Some believe the
infrastructure the fence around Devil's Hole, a hydrometer that
provides a constant measure of its water level, the platform used to
observe the fish has somehow altered that process.

Others wonder if the population has grown so small that inbreeding
has caused ``genetic meltdown'' and survival is no longer viable.

And a few experts suggest we might be seeing natural ebb in the
development of a species that has evolved over 20,000 years.

Just 85 pupfish remained in Devil's Hole last fall. To minimize
winter mortality, biologists started stocking Devil's Hole with food
developed for the endangered silvery minnow.

They think it helped. Researchers counted as many as 42 pupfish
during the three dives they made one day last month. That's up from 38
the previous spring.

More encouraging, the divers saw pupfish in a wide range of sizes,
indicating there is a good mix of juveniles and adults. And six
including three born this spring held in refugia are doing well.

``We're in a much better position this year than we were last,''
said Bob Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has
spent about $750,000 on the pupfish effort since January 2006. ``I'm
optimistic. I think we can make great strides this year.''

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.)