A Tiny Icon of the Conservation Movement

In the December issue of Wired magazine, I’ve got a story about saving species in the DNA era, a time when longstanding ideas about conservation–what we’re trying to protect, how to protect it–may no longer apply. The story is about whether it’s okay–even necessary–to mess with wild species’ genes in order to save them. It hinges on the Devils Hole pupfish, a tiny creature with a storied history.

Its home is part of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, a desert oasis that houses the highest number of endemic species (two dozen) in the U.S. Bathtub-warm springs bubble up from belowground in more than 50 locations and wind among mesquite trees, occasionally opening into small turquoise ponds. In the early 1960s, entrepreneurs used these pools as nurseries for tropical aquarium fish.

A desert oasis

Over the years, other intrepid types moved to this high slice of the Mojave with grand get-rich visions: they farmed and grazed it, they moved earth and water to mine for peat, they sold its soil for cat litter. (This last industry persists nearby: your cat may be doing his business right now on a shovelful of Ash Meadows zeolite.) In the late ‘60s, expanding agriculture tapped the aquifer and caused water levels to drop in Devils Hole, and conservation-minded folks began to worry about the future of the fish. It was listed as endangered in 1967, even before the Endangered Species Act. The real threat to the landscape came a few years later, when developers descended with plans to build Calvada Lakes—an entirely new town of more than 30,000 homes built on 14 square miles of pavement in the middle of nowhere.

Ash Meadows Wildlife Preserve was almost paved over

For more than a decade, an epic land-use war unfolded: federal agencies, state agencies, local capitalists, U.S. Representatives, the Supreme Court. At issue was whether an inch-long fish’s right to water trumped all other claims. Battle lines were drawn in bumper stickers: “Save the Pupfish” and “Kill the Pupfish.” In 1976, one Nevada newspaper goaded readers to dump toxic chemicals into Devil’s Hole, to obliterate the scaly impediment to progress. “An appropriate quantity of rotenone dumped into that desert sinkhole,” the editorial read, “would effectively and abruptly halt the federal attempt at usurpation.”

In a landmark decision that year, the Supreme Court granted the pupfish senior water rights – the first nonhuman species to gain legal rights to water – turning it into a tiny icon in the annals of American conservation. Seven years later, The Nature Conservancy, with 11th-hour help from a Congressional appropriation, managed to buy the land, which is now a federal wildlife preserve.

And yet, despite having won its home and saved the ecosystem, despite having gone all the way to Washington and into history books, the Devils Hole pupfish is still flailing.

Want to know why? Keep reading

Andrew Martin, an evolutionary biologist at the University Colorado and the protagonist of the Wired story

Okay, this is actually an Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, not the Devils Hole version. But whether they’re actually distinct species is a controversial topic.

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