Divining Devils Hole: Part II

Around the same time that the two young men disappeared into the abysmal depths of Devils Hole, irreversible ecological devastation was intensifying at Ash Meadows. Located in the Amargosa Desert, Ash Meadows is an arid transition zone between the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin. This stunning oasis of glistening crystal blue pools (fed by nearly fifty perennial seeps and springs) originally encompassed nearly 50,000 acres before a series of unrelenting modifications to the land began to play out. At least twenty-six endemic species thrive here today—plants, insects and animals that have been so biologically isolated throughout time that they flourish in a single location exclusively. For thousands of years, humans—later including those of Euro-American descent who settled here during the nineteenth century—have been living rather sustainably at Ash Meadows without any apparent lasting damage to its ecology. But beginning in the 1960s, when besieged by a series of ongoing unsustainable human activities, a pattern of ecological abuse driven by economic opportunity began to take hold.

The first blow was the destruction of 2,000 acres of alkaline meadows of the Carson Slough—considered to be the largest wetland complex in southern Nevada and home to the probably extinct Ash Meadows montane vole—before it was drained of its life for a peat mining operation during the early 1960s. The peat supply, which had taken thousands of years to form, ran out within three short years. Next, a corporate cattle and alfalfa ranch run by Cappaert Enterprises’ Spring Meadows Ranch, Inc. acquired 12,000 acres of both private and public land holdings a few years later. Immediately the outfit bulldozed the natural springs into oblivion, constructed ditches and other water control infrastructure, and began drilling supplemental production wells to irrigate 4,000 acres already in cultivation. Although never put into full production, a single test well drilled near the forty-acre Devils Hole reservation along with several nearby wells caused the water level of Devils Hole to drop drastically—portending the demise of C. diabolis if the Cappaerts were allowed to continue pumping water unencumbered and at will.

Concerned biologists and activists immediately responded by joining together to form the Desert Fishes Council. The group, which included Phil Pister who had literally saved the entire population of Owens Valley pupfish (C. radiosus) from extinction in 1969 when he carried two buckets of remaining pupfish from a nearly dried up stream called Fish Slough, pushed Congress to organize a Pupfish Task Force that was eventually overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1970.

Timetable for Disaster, an Emmy winning, hour-long NBC documentary on water pollution broadcast in 1970, featured a fifteen-minute segment on the plight of Devils Hole. This, plus other media attention, fueled public support for protecting the pupfish, although some Nevadan locals, including a Nye County commissioner, countered the conservationists’ SAVE THE PUPFISH bumper sticker with one displaying KILL THE PUPFISH. Throughout this period the Spring Meadows Ranch continued to withdraw from three wells that were steadily decreasing the Devils Hole water level. By 1972, groundwater levels dropped to 3.9 feet below the wall-mounted copper gauge thus exposing more than 60 percent of the limestone shelf needed for the pupfish to spawn, forage and ultimately survive.[1] As tensions mounted over the ensuing lawsuits and appeals, an Elko newspaper editor, angered at the Feds for meddling in state water politics, went as far as to write a blistering and thoughtless editorial in 1976 suggesting that someone pour Rotenone, a potent piscicide, into the pool to permanently do away with “the 200 little fish nobody can ever see.”[2]

Cappaert Enterprises’ waterights lawsuit eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1976, the landmark Cappaert v. United States unanimous decision ruled in favor of the federal government, upholding its right “to maintain the level of the pool to preserve its [C. diabolis] scientific value.”[3] Additionally, it held that Devils Hole pupfish were “objects of historic and scientific interest,” and, most importantly, worthy of our protection and preservation. The case acknowledged the interconnected aspects of the Death Valley regional surface and groundwater flow system and illuminated how pumping water in one location could negatively impact another seemingly far away. The Cappaert decision, along with an earlier case clarifying Native American water rights in conjunction with the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, led to the watershed 1973 Environmental Protection Act that paved the way for the federal government to reserve water rights and consequently protect through its authority other rare aquatic species and habitats throughout the United States.

When Spring Meadows Ranch, Inc. ceased operations, it offered to sell its land and associated water rights to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Oddly, the agency declined, reasoning that the endemic fish of the area, which include the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish and the Ash Meadows speckled dace, had not yet been listed as federally endangered. This unfortunate decision opened the door for a new threat—Cappaert instead sold its holdings to Preferred Equities Corporation run by Pahrump businessman Jack Soules, whose grand plan to develop Calvada Lakes estates launched in 1980 included nearly 34,000 residential lots, various recreational lakes, golf courses, hotels, strip malls, an airport and other unsustainable commercial development. Once again developers won out. While more habitat destruction ensued, the Nature Conservancy was busy raising money to buy the property outright and transfer it over to Fish and Wildlife at their cost.

Even Ed Abbey—who had finished up his final draft for Desert Solitaire during 1966-67 at a brothel’s bar at the edge of Ash Meadows (while waiting to shuttle local children from nearby Shoshone to Furnace Creek in his yellow school bus)—was recruited to join the cause by the wife of one of the more intimately involved biologists but declined, suggesting that they bring in the “Monkeywrench Gang” if they deemed necessary.

Soules, a difficult character all around, stalled negotiations with inflated counteroffers and at one point boasted to biologists Jim Deacon, Don Sada and others at Kings Pools on how he planned to incorporate ancient Indian grinding depressions preserved in surrounding boulders and the bordering spring as living room “centerpieces” for his own personal home. After some recently protected Ash Meadows pupfish and speckled dace were found dead at this same location, Preferred Equities was finally shut down in 1982.[4] Soules died of a heart attack a year later while on a Pahrump golf course. Two years later the 23,000-acre Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge became a reality.

The remediation and restoration of the Ash Meadows is miraculous to the say the least. The picture biologists paint after the land was finally transferred over to U.S. Fish and Wildlife suggests that this landscape was bleak and hardly recognizable—its destroyed springs were overrun by exotic species and its endemics were on the brink of extinction. Walking the elevated boardwalks today I am amazed by how well the biologists, contractors and volunteers managed to radically reconstruct, restore and transform this ecology—essentially bringing it back from the dead. The restoration here is not complete and the place itself may not be exactly as it had been before Euro-Americans arrived, but that is not really the point. If one considers and reflects on how humans have collaborated—sometimes negatively, sometimes positively—with natural systems over time, we may be able to learn a few things about ourselves and also beyond ourselves if we dare to look closely.

KILL THE PUPFISH bumper sticker, circa 1970. Photo: Phil Pister collection.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Olin Feuerbacher monitors Devils Hole pupfish thriving in the new simulated tank environment. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Devils Hole Simulacra

Although the 1976 Cappaert v. United States legally protected the critically endangered C. diabolis—by guaranteeing the water level of the Devils Hole pool would be continuously and adequately maintained so the pupfish thrive and reproduce—the law did not provide solutions for the various naturally occurring and human-induced environmental challenges it now faced.

Managed jointly by the National Park Service as a satellite unit of Death Valley National Park in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Nevada Department of Wildlife, scientists first began recording the number of observed fish living wild at Devils Hole during biannual dive counts beginning in 1972. The highest recorded tally were 553 pupfish in August 1977. Keeping in mind that Devils Hole pupfish populations fluctuate seasonally and are higher in fall than during spring due to their natural life cycle—the population counts remained fairly stable from 1972 to 1996, averaging at 324 fish. Alarmingly, a downward spiral began to take hold; 171 fish were recorded in 2004, eighty-five in November 2005 and only thirty-eight in April 2006. A supplemental feeding program begun in 2006 may have helped improve population counts for several years afterwards but scientists cannot say for sure. Unfortunately, their numbers mysteriously dropped to an all-time low of thirty-five fish in spring 2013 but have rebounded to 187 individuals as of fall 2018.

It hasn’t helped that C. diabolis is incredibly difficult to breed in captivity or that series of poor management decisions were made since active stewardship of the species began in 1972, including relocation of too many wild pupfish in an attempt to establish backup colonies elsewhere. Mishaps also occurred, including a 2004 incident when university researchers improperly stored larval fish traps that washed into the pool after a flash flood, killing more than a third of the population. The majority of the incidents, equipment malfunctions and the like, occurred at the off-site refuges such as the artificial pool built in 1972 to house them at Hoover Dam.

Just a few months after the dismal count was announced in 2013, the $4.5 million Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility opened its doors less than a mile away. This state-of-the-art 110,000-gallon refuge tank and filtering system was designed as a replica of Devils Hole—down to an identical shallow spawning/foraging shelf. Although the drab grey concrete infrastructure is no match for the original’s sublime appearance, this replica does simulate every pool contour along with oxygen-deprived 92.3˚ Fahrenheit water sourced from a nearby 100-foot well, which is chemically identical to that of Devils Hole. The tank is a mere twenty-two feet deep instead of some unknown depth, but does extend out from under the building to provide some twists and turns for the pupfish to explore. A computerized shading system covering the semi-open louvered roof allows the structure to replicate Devils Hole’s actual solar exposure both daily and seasonally. Additionally, a large southern-facing window frames a lovely view of Ash Meadows. An array of complex and redundant apparatuses, sensors, cameras and security systems monitor the fish, water levels, pool temperature and the buildings 24/7.

The pupfish’s favorite meal of algae, diatoms and tiny invertebrates are grown at the “slime factory” in an adjacent building along with offices and the working guts of this elaborate maintenance operation. The conservation team, led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Olin Feuerbacher, is involved in transferring wild Devils Hole eggs that, left alone, would not become viable naturally. Through a painstaking collection process involving “egg recovery mats” that are brought into the facility and carefully searched, the team locates every tiny pupfish egg measuring a mere one millimeter in diameter. After a series of precautionary decontamination treatments, the eggs are hatched and reared until the fish are old enough for transfer into the refuge pool. In was reported in late 2014 that twenty-nine “pure” Devils Hole pupfish have been raised to adulthood, yielding the first successful captive population in nearly ten years. Having observed their work firsthand, I can attest to the diligence and commitment required to nurture and protect these prized fish from extinction.

The National Parks Service Devils Hole program along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s rearing facility together costs taxpayers $640,000 annually. Detractors often cite the cost of the facility and its upkeep as a waste of public funds. Considering this mindset, compare a more well-attended aquatic simulacrum located two hours south at the $60 million Mandalay Bay Casino’s Shark Reef Aquarium, which boasts the third largest tank in the U.S.[5] To their credit, the aquarium conservation program hosted a Devils Hole pupfish breeding program in past years and continues to maintain a small population of hybridized Devils Hole pupfish.

Although stopgaps have been implemented to aid the wild stock such as the supplemental feeding program—the native population’s mysterious downward spiral may continue; the cause of which is still largely unknown. Outside of the known environmental challenges that the pupfish face, some genetics researchers contend that complications arising from the smaller population’s narrowing gene pool, including “genetic drift” or “genetic bottleneck,” will result in harmful accretion of mutations. Still, this does not explain why (if one is to subscribe to the ever-enduring-small-population-over-time hypothesis) that C. diabolis did not die out long before we began observing them, as it has been determined that the wild population has always been small.

Anthropogenic-driven changes in climate are contributing to rising shallow shelf temperatures above 93˚ and upwards to 98˚ Fahrenheit, leading potentially to a point of no return. Temperature fluctuation further stresses these already environmentally-challenged fish, in that it severely limits food production and seasonal availability within the shelf habitat. Additionally, a lengthier and continuously warmer shelf environment is expected to shorten the period that hatched pupfish larvae may become viable—from 10 weeks to 8 weeks by mid-century.[6]

Perhaps the most compelling hypothesis is the “phenotype plasticity” argument that shows how environmental nuances influence plastic or morphological evolutionary physiological changes within a species in a very short period of time—for the Devils Hole pupfish it seems this can occur within only a few generations. To understand this concept we need to backtrack a bit: when off-site Devils Hole colonies were established, several were done so at the nearby Ash Meadows’ School Spring in 1973 and one near Point of Rocks in 1990. Here, some strange physical anomalies were observed; relocated fish in both springs began producing offspring that were larger in size, more proportionally balanced and less juvenile in appearance. Males also displayed more aggressive mating behaviors and were seen defending their territories with renewed vigor. A few fish even began sporting the missing telltale pelvic fins. To their dismay conservationists abandoned some of these colonies outright believing that some sneaky C. nevadensis mionectes had crossbred with C. diabolis, thus causing the hybridization. The problem is that scientists are now able to recreate this same effect in the lab but in reverse—by rearing another close cousin, the Amargosa River pupfish (C. nevadensis amargosae) in a hot, oxygen-depleted environment similar to what wild Devils Hole pupfish experience and by providing less food. After just a few generations, voilà! “Franken-fish” exhibiting similar morphological and behavioral characteristics are born. One could then surmise that Devils Hole pupfish have only been in their infamous home for “the last hundred years to thousand years [and] could have occurred through human intervention”—a controversial argument posed by J. Michael Reed and Craig Stockwell in their 2014 paper “Evaluating an icon of population persistence: The Devils Hole pupfish.”[7]

Contemplation of phenotype plasticity, Reed and Stockwell’s hypothesis and other related theories brings up a flood of speculation, unexpected possibilities and ethical determinations for researchers, ecologists and political decision makers to consider when regarding C. diabolis future. As researcher Sean Lema commented in American Scientist on the subject of phenotype plasticity in 2008:

If the phenotypes of animals can be intimately tied to their environments what are we trying to preserve—the unique genetic composition of the animal or the unique animal in the context of its distinctive environment? Is it the same species if it is not preserved in the habitat that made it unique?[8]

More significantly, if and when C. diabolis does become extinct, how will this momentous and dire outcome affect the web of tangled water rights and endangered species protections that radiate out from Devils Hole? If Devils Hole pupfish do cease to exist, will the fragile ecological infrastructure constructed around them, directly and indirectly protecting so many other intertwined species, fall by the wayside to future greedy developers with their shortsighted development schemes?

As an enduring symbol of resilience, C. diabolis suggests fortitude and hope against all odds. Devils Hole serves as a portent into deep time, reminding us of Earth’s interconnectivity that binds us together through its geological processes that will continue long after our human lives cease to exist. This mysterious portal invites us to delve deep within ourselves, into the damp, dark womb of the unknown, to find divination here as ancestral shamans and their contemporaries do while traveling its endless watery passages. Devils Hole offers us a contemplative peripheral experience into a great aquifer that deserves recognition, both above and below the earth’s surface, as a kind of subterranean national monument that the majority of us will never be able to experience directly.

By electing to nurture and heal the land as stewards and not destroyers, we continue supporting the progressive intersubjective relationship with nonhuman nature begun by the indigenous people of the region—the Western Shoshone, the Southern Paiute and their ancestors before them. In turn, the continued and persistent work of researchers, biologists, land management officials and everyday concerned citizens at Ash Meadows and Devils Hole binds us to an ecological contract begun here long ago when some mischievous child poured a gourd of tiny fish into its thermal waters. As to whether or not we choose to maintain this pact into the future, I suspect will directly affect our own evolutionary trajectory and most definitely our temporal and spiritual well-being in that we are implicitly tied to Earth’s natural systems, its rhythms and overall health just as Devils Hole is connected to some unlikely distant spot on the planet some 2,000 miles away.

Click here to read Part I of this dispatch.

The author thanks Kevin Wilson, ecologist and manager of the National Park Service Devils Hole program for graciously providing feedback for this dispatch along with Olin Feuerbacher,  aquaculturist, Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility, Ambre Chaudoin, fish biologist, Death Valley National Park Service and Phil Pister. KILL THE PUPFISH photo courtesy of Phil Pister. This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

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[1] United States v. Cappaert; Cappaert v. United States, No. 74-1690, cert. granted sub nom.; Nos. 74-1107; 74-1304 (9th Cir. December 4, 1974; June 23, 1975). https://elr.info/sites/default/files/litigation/5.20494.htm.

[2] Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, 131.

[3] United States v. Cappaert; Cappaert v. United States.

[4] Norment, Relicts of a Beautiful Sea, 171.

[5] Clay Jackson, “Sin City’s “Green” Shark Reef Aquarium,” Petcha.com, January 21, 2010. https://www.petcha.com/sin-citys-green-shark-reef-aquarium/

[6] Mike Wolterbeek, “Climate change puts endangered Devils Hole pupfish at risk of extinction,” Nevada Today, University of Nevada, Reno, August 26, 2014.

[7] J. Michael Reed and Craig A. Stockwell, “Evaluating an icon of population persistence: the Devil’s Hole pupfish” Proceedings. Biological sciences vol. 281,1794 (2014): 20141648.

[8] For further reading see: Sean C. Lema, “The Phenotypic Plasticity of Death Valley’s Pupfish,” American Scientist 96 (Jan–Feb 2008).

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