Devil's Hole Pupfish Betting On Survival

For more than 10,000 years tiny, goldfish-shaped fish have survived in a Mojave Desert spring with shimmering waters the temperature of a tepid bath.
Devapupfish_copy But for the last nine years, something has sent the Devil's Hole pupfish --already officially endangered as a species -- into a death spiral, dropping their numbers to barely three dozen. It's a tiny population for a species that could be the next to blink off the face of the Earth unless a team of biologists can quickly perfect a captive-breeding program.
"This is the lowest this population has ever been since we started monitoring in the early '60s," Bob Williams, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told me the other day. "The highest population was around 541 in the 1972-74 period. We've noticed since about 1997 a decline in the population and we've been trying to figure out why."
A fish whose survival once was debated before the U.S. Supreme Court -- which sided with the fish over developers and states' rights advocates -- the 38 officially surviving members of pupfish within Devil's Hole now are betting their future, in part, on a Las Vegas casino, as well as a national fish hatchery.
Between the ichthyologists at the Mandalay Bay Casino's Shark Reef exhibit and those at the Willow Beach National Fish Hatchery, biologists are hoping a captive-breeding program can begin this summer.
Why am I posting about the Devil's Hole pupfish, a fish less than an inch in length and with a lifespan of just 10-12 months?
Well, while Devil's Hole -- a spring roughly 21 feet by 9 feet -- is located within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada, techically it is an extension of Death Valley National Park found some 90 miles to the west. The value of diminutive Devil's Hole pupfish was first nationally recognized in 1952, when President Truman extended 40 acres of protection to the spring that this "peculiar race" of fish call home.
When agricultural irrigation in 1967 threatened to lower the spring's water level below a six-by-12-foot limestone shelf the pupfish use for spawning, activists came to the fish's defense in a battle that led to the Supreme Court decision in 1976.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists, recognizing how fragile the pupfish's population is, in the mid-1970s created a "refugia" below Hoover Dam for a sub-population of Devil's Hole pupfish. During a mid-April census this population showed 29 individuals.
If the experts at Mandalay Bay and Willow Beach, who just within the past four weeks began work with hybridized pupfish in a bid to master their propagation in captivity, can succeed at the task, some members of the Devil's Hole population would be moved into captivity, possibly as early as June, in an effort to bolster the fragile population.
But when there are four other species of pupfish that are doing relatively well, population-wise, one might wonder, 'Why all the concern about the Devil's Hole pupfish?' I mean, a pupfish is a pupfish is a pupfish, no?
"From a diversity standpoint, I guess I look at it as Devil's Hole pupfish is important, locally, because it can be looked at as the canary for the whole area of the Death Valley region, Ash Meadows in particular," Williams told me. "If we lose this fish, it kind of gives us some sense that we're going to lose other resources."