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Should We Really Save the Devils Hole Pupfish?

They’re an inch long. There are fewer than 100 left. Is it worth the effort?

“Wildlife is and should be useless,” author Richard Conniff wrote in the opinion pages of the New York Times last month, “in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless.”

Conniff’s argument, which I encourage you to read in its entirety, is that we should appreciate and care about animals even if we can’t tie a dollar sign to them. Cuttlefish and spiders, he said, have their own value, independent of what military and medical discoveries we might one day be able to tease out of them.

It was an insightful piece that struck chords throughout the conservation and science-writing communities. And it made me take a long, hard look at the ongoing debate over whether we should try to save a little fish at the bottom of a hole in the middle of the desert.

I refer, of course, to the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis).

If you’ve heard of it, it’s because the species is pretty famous (as far as fish celebrity goes). Appearing in nature documentaries, pop-sci magazines, and Hillary Rosner’s award-winning 2012 piece “Attack of the Mutant Pupfish,” the pupfish is no stranger to headlines in the conservation world. And rightly so. It's considered the world’s rarest fish, with fewer than 100 of the inch-long animals left in existence.

In fact, if you scooped up every one of these pupfish left on earth, the whole species would fit cozily into an Igloo cooler. You’d probably even still have room left over for a case of beer.

But to be fair, there have never been many Devils Hole pupfish. The species has been trapped in a hot, salty 500-foot-deep aquifer in the Mojave Desert for something like 50,000 years. Though the hole is deep, the fish typically only inhabit the top 25 to 30 feet. Most of their feeding and breeding center around a single, barely submerged rock shelf.

Scientists consider this hole in Nevada to be one of if not the smallest habitats on the planet for a vertebrate. Under the absolute best circumstances, this shallow pool could probably only support a total of some 600 pupfish.

Still, even given those limitations, scientists are concerned the pupfish population is critically low. A study published this August in the journal Water Resources Research showed that rising water temperatures (a result of climate change) have compromised the fish’s optimal spawning habitat since warmer water holds less oxygen. (FYI, at a balmy 92 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, the water in Devils Hole is already at the top temperature range that most fish can tolerate, so there isn’t much wiggle room.) The scientists also worry this pupfish is swimming in a shallow gene pool, with a millennia worth of inbreeding negatively affecting its reproductive success. Something might also be happening to its food supply of algae, plants, and aquatic invertebrates, though the scientists know not what.

Oh yeah, and every once in a while, earthquakes, from as far away as southern Mexico, cause the water in Devils Hole to slosh like water in a bathtub. Because these fish don’t have enough going against them already.

All in all, according to a risk assessment study published last month in PeerJ, there is a 28 percent to 32 percent chance that the Devils Hole pupfish will go extinct in the next 20 years.

Maybe we should let it? Sounds harsh (and I don't really mean that), but at this point, it seems unlikely that the Devils Hole pupfish holds the key to fighting cancer, nor will some vast ecosystem collapse without its presence. I mean, you can’t even enjoy seeing the pupfish in person—a barbed-wire fence surrounds Devils Hole in order to keep them safe.

In other words, one could (and some would) make the argument that the Devils Hole pupfish is, for all intents and purposes, useless. Conniff would say that’s all the more reason we should save it. I tend to agree, and so, in effect, does the U.S. government.

In 2013 the Fish and Wildlife Service opened the $4.5 million Ash Meadows Desert Fish Conservation Facility, complete with a state-of-the-art laboratory and a 100,000-gallon tank designed to re-create the conditions of Devils Hole in every conceivable way. (Funding for the facility came from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act and the budget for Death Valley National Park.) There, fish biologists from numerous government agencies and research institutions are desperately trying to maintain a reserve population of pupfish in case something catastrophic should happen to the main population.

All this, I reiterate, for a few dozen fish at the bottom of a hole in the middle of the desert. One is tempted to ask whether we couldn’t use these monetary and intellectual resources for some species a little more worthwhile.

But here’s the thing about nature and conservation—nothing, not even a handful of hole-fish—exists in a vacuum. “The coattails for the pupfish are large,” says Steven Beissinger, an environmental science professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the recent pupfish risk analysis in PeerJ.

Back in 1967, you see, the Devils Hole pupfish was one of the first species protected by the Endangered Species Preservation Act, which you’ll recognize by its modern name, the (mother cussin’) Endangered Species Act(!), the strongest piece of pro-biodiversity legislation we have. And that hole the fish call home isn’t just a hole in the middle of nowhere. It is connected through subterranean channels to groundwater throughout the American Southwest. So government officials were then given the authority to rein in the rampant overpumping of groundwater throughout the region.

As you might imagine, land developers and agricultural interests got pretty hot when the guv’mint told them to curb water usage because of some fish they’d never heard of. Thus kicked off the water wars of the ’60s and ’70s. Some bumper stickers even read “Kill the Pupfish.” The whole hubbub went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1976 ruled in favor of the fish, the hole, and the environment.

If the pupfish’s existence does serve a larger purpose, it’s this: According to Beissinger, aquatic ecosystems throughout the Southwest gained protections thanks to that Supreme Court ruling.

Still, it’s a little hard for some people to stomach the idea of spending that kind of time and money on one school of fish that had the misfortune of getting trapped in a hole during the last Ice Age. To which Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist and the program manager at Devils Hole, points out: The fish might have done just fine if humanity hadn’t come along and mucked things up. “This species is in decline most likely due to anthropocentric impacts. Humans influence this population.”

Long story short, here’s a species that has survived in a tiny pit in the desert for 50,000 years, weathering periods of extreme flooding and drought, and enduring food shortages, earthquakes, lack of genetic diversity, and base temperatures hotter than most other fish on this planet can withstand. And now, in the last three decades, humans have messed up the global climate so much, so fast, that this little Rambo of a fish has finally been forced to put on Semisonic’s “Closing Time” and start shuffling toward the door of oblivion. Are we really going to let that happen? Is that how we want to roll?

“Society has to decide which species we save or do not save,” Wilson says. It’s an easy choice when we talk about wanting to see the savannah shake with rhinos and the oceans teem with blue whales. But the useless little pupfish has as much right as any creature to exist. And the fact that its survival is a longshot should only spur us forward.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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