April 15, 2019

They passed around a bottle of Malibu rum as gunshots bellowed into the desert night. A trio of young men had set up camp near the unincorporated town of Crystal, 80 miles outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. As recently as 2005, the tiny town hosted two brothels, but by April 2016, it was pretty much empty, ideal for carefree camping on a moon-like stretch of desert, the perfect place to pass around a bottle and a shotgun for some bunny blasting.

As often happens on a night like that, things went downhill. Drunk on rum and the roar of the gun, the three men fired up an off-road vehicle and drove away from camp. Riding in back was Trent, a chestnut-haired, bearded 27-year-old, who carried the shotgun and blasted away at road signs as they tore across the Amargosa Valley and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. They headed toward a remote unit of Death Valley National Park: Devils Hole, a deep pool inside a sunken limestone cavern. The area’s surrounded by 10-foot-tall fencing, a fortress erected to protect an endangered species of pupfish found there.

Trent shot at the gate to the pedestrian walkway area and then shot the surveillance camera and yanked it from its mount. Then he and one of his companions, Steven, stumbled into the enclosure. Steven was so intoxicated that it took him multiple tries to clear the fence. Inside the enclosure, he paused to empty his bladder.

Filled with mischief, Trent lunged toward his partner and punched him in the crotch with a left hook. Then, as Steven stumbled over to a large boulder to vomit, Trent dropped the shotgun, stripped off his clothes, and slipped into the deep warm water of Devils Hole. He didn’t know it yet, but that would prove to be his worst mistake of the night.

Devils Hole pupfish — some of the rarest fish in the world — are found only in a deep geologic fissure fed by water from the aquifer that lies below the Mojave Desert.
Brett Seymour/NPS Submerged Resources Center

SIXTY THOUSAND YEARS AGO, a narrow fissure opened up in the Amargosa Valley, releasing water pooled deep in the earth and creating Devils Hole, the opening to an underwater cavern. Scientists disagree over just how it happened — whether by way of underground tunnels, ancient floods or receding waters — but several desert fish were separated from the larger population and trapped in Devils Hole. There, a tiny sub-population — the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) — evolved in extreme isolation for tens of thousands of years, eventually, according to scientific consensus, becoming an entirely new species.

Today, visitors to Devils Hole get a rare window into one of the Mojave Desert’s vast aquifers. Steep limestone walls surround a tiny opening into turquoise water. Divers have descended over 400 feet into the cave without reaching the bottom. The water is so deep that earthquakes on the other side of the world cause it to slosh, shocking the fish into spawning.

The environment in Devils Hole is so remote and extreme that scientists have long puzzled over how the pupfish can live there at all. Still, a modest population has managed to survive on a shallow, sloping rock shelf that gets just enough sunlight — only four hours per day at its peak — to allow algae to grow for the fish to eat.

The environment in Devils Hole is so remote and extreme that scientists have long puzzled over how the pupfish can live there at all.

The Devils Hole pupfish are truly unique. The males are a bright blue, the females a subdued teal, and they’re only about an inch long. They are more docile and produce fewer offspring than their cousins, which are found in pockets ranging from the Southwest toward the Gulf of Mexico. The Devils Hole pupfish lacks the pelvic fin that enables its kin to be vigorous swimmers. But it is able to thrive in temperatures far warmer than similar species can tolerate. Trapped by geology in a consistent 93-degree womb, Devils Hole pupfish have nowhere to go. In fact, they have the smallest geographic range of any known vertebrate species on earth.

The pupfish were among the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1967 — along with the American alligator, the California condor and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard — and that protection was carried over to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. At the time, around 220 survived in Devils Hole, but since the 1990s, the species has been in significant decline, sinking to just 35 fish in 2013. Today, there are modest signs that the population is growing; the last population count was 136.

The tiny fish has become an icon for those looking to protect endangered species and their habitat, but it’s a target of deep resentment in Nevada, and particularly in Nye County, where, according to critics, the interests of an obscure fish are pitted against the livelihood of local agricultural families. The issue has tested water rights in this arid part of the American West and raised questions about how far officials should go to save a handful of imperiled fish. The drunken invasion of its habitat in 2016 was not unprecedented: Dozens of trespasses have been documented throughout the decades. But such crimes are difficult to investigate and rarely prosecuted.

This time, however, would be different.

More: https://www.hcn.org/issues/51.6/endangered-species-how-a-tiny-endangered-species-put-a-man-in-prison?fbclid=IwAR07sYQdxClcYckxYrSb-bLO7AV70ItGCBmk7pykOR_ICfwxhuWBER0Q7pE

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