Do Not Mess with the Devils Hole Pupfish

File -- In this Saturday, April 30, 2016, file photo, a still image taken from security video released by the National Park Service, shows three men inside the perimeter fence at the edge of Devils Hole, in Death Valley National Park, Nev. The National Park Service says the men climbed a fence guarding Devils Hole, a detached portion of the park located in southwestern Nevada, on April 30. The Park Service says they fired a shotgun at least 10 times and one man swam in Devils Hole, a hot-water pool that is the only natural home of the tiny Devils Hole pupfish. The man left his boxer shorts in the water. (National Park Service via AP, File)

In Death Valley National Park lies Devils Hole: an aquifer-fed pool home to one of the rarest fish species in the world — the Devils Hole pupfish. The pupfish has been the center of controversy between conservationists dedicated to protecting the inch-long species and Nevadans who believe it isn’t worth sacrificing their right to pump water on their land.

As Paige Blankenbuehler reports at High Country News, Trent Sargent learned about how well the pupfish is protected the hard way. After a booze-fueled break-in and skinny-dipping session at Devils Hole in which Sargent killed a pupfish, the law tracked him down and he was sentenced to a year and a day in jail.

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 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.

Normally, the nocturnal visitors would have been caught by a motion sensor that triggered a loud alarm. But a barn owl roosting in the area had caused too many false alarms, and rather than spook the bird, officials had disabled the device. So once the men broke in, they felt no real urgency to leave. Little did they know that multiple cameras captured their every move.

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