Some of my greatest joys occur when I choose the road less traveled. Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, an hour’s drive outside Death Valley National Park, aptly fits that description, but this jewel of desert beauty is also home to the toughest fish – shorter than an inch – ever to take a case to the United States Supreme Court. And the fish won – for now.
Ash Meadows is nestled in the Amargosa Desert in southern Nevada and men of ambition were determined to bring civilization to the desert. There was plenty of water underground just waiting to be taken. And who cared about a fish so small it was called “pupfish” or that you could easily fit 100 of them in a teacup? (The teacup notion fails once you realize less than 100 Devils Hole pupfish are currently alive, making them the rarest of the 30 or so species of pupfish).
The pupfish in Devils Hole adapted to water with low oxygen levels, meager food sources, and in a place in constant danger of habitat destruction due to earthquakes, storm runoff pollution or flooding from fierce rains.
The Devil’s Hole pupfish was doomed if the men pumped the groundwater; water that had taken thousands of years to journey more than 100 miles underground and then slowly seep, trickle and gather through a complex network to arrive at the place called Devils Hole and Ash Meadows. Nature’s result is a steady flow of life-sustaining water at 2,800 gallons per minute, home to the pupfish, an incredible biodiversity, and the stream was essential for Native Americans who called this place home.
Lucky for the pupfish, people who care about the Earth and the creatures that live here took up the fish’s fight. The notion that animals and fish (plants, too!) have rights was so foreign to the men of ambition that they never contemplated what the Endangered Species Protection Act might do to them.
Their reckoning came in 1976 when the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the Endangered Species Act. The court ruling meant pupfish have rights. In this case, rights to the groundwater that those men had greedily thought was theirs.
But a favorable court ruling does not guarantee the pupfish’s continued existence (first listed as endangered in 1967).
Ash Meadows is the sole remaining fresh water oasis in the Mojave Desert. More than two dozen plants and animals are endemic to the area, including the Devils Hole pupfish. And while the area around Ash Meadows is replete with wildlife such as desert bighorn sheep, a wide variety of birds, animals, and plants, the Devils Hole pupfish lives under constant peril. Researchers are working to save the pupfish. Breeding programs have tried and failed, but keep on trying to breed the pupfish in captivity.
On your next visit to Death Valley take that less traveled road and visit Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge (it’s just two hours from Las Vegas), where the worlds of water, desert, and nature’s beauty flow together as one.
And say “hello” to the biggest little fish who ever lived. But you better hurry.
For more information go to, http://www.fws.gov/refuge/ash_meadows/ or http://www.desertusa.com/ash_meadows/ash_meadows_nwr.html