Desert Southwest

Death Valley, California

The Saltwater Fish
of Death Valley

Notes on the pupfish of Death Valley and the Desert Southwest.


ack in 1969, there were bumper stickers all over this region that urged the elimination of all the seafood just east of here, in Nevada. The bumper stickers said, "Kill the Pupfish!", and people had had enough of this one inch swimming mongrel. But enough about that, let's talk about me.

Six years ago, I set camp at Furnace Creek under a creosote and headed for the cooking pots. I cooked green beans and mashed avocados and made cheese and bread sandwiches and fried spinach. I sauteed gulf shrimps in spice sauce and watched the sun set across the dunes.

I had a workable knowledge of a travel stove, some spare white gas, and a cooler of tightly wrapped foods. Nobody told me you couldn't carry your kitchen with you.

Back then - that was 1998, I didn't think much about the details that made life so wonderful.

I knew what I liked - every man - no matter how tempted and enthralled by the modern world - every man has the same basic things that make him happy. Food, women, sport. A good wine and some cheese. Her curves. His early morning sprint along the beach. There is nothing more to life than a good conversation and a balmy night, and the flourishing of our modern world will at best only help us to live and ponder and desire these age old things even more. That is, if we don't kill the pupfish.

Death Valley Water

Winter in Death Valley

Back then, in 1998, I knew that everything we enjoy is part of nature. Goodness - the beauty of women, if that's not evolution at its finest, then what is? Sport - our desire to be in free flight - that's our hunting and foraging instinct. That cheese and wine - those are the relationships between ewe's milk and mold and fungus and time and the grass that is grown in the gentle valley, and the aging of the grapes in the oak barrels. It's all the same - iPods and digital music and computers - these are good things but the joys of life go on - basic, and animal and good.

I knew that then - I knew that nature is life, and humanity cannot escape it, no matter how much our modern world resembles something separate from it. We are bound to it and it encompasses what it means to be human.

I knew that, but I did not know how important an unimportant fish would become to the future of the world. Now I am back in Death Valley with Jane. Out of the truck and into the heat, she is saying why don't you ever take me somewhere cold! But I know she'll light up when we see the fish. The little buggers will do her in.

That morning after my seafood dinner, I decided to carry along under the giant mountains above. Telescope Peak, looming above the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, is over 11,000 feet high. This is Death Valley - geologically, it's a regional case of crustal sinking - where the valley center continues to sink as the east and west mountain ranges get pushed higher by the pressure.

Wandering around, I came to a small river. It's really not even a creek. It's about an inch of water, trickling along. But it is flourishing...with fish.

But enough about me, let's talk about the pupfish.

That's what the rangers call them. Pupfish - smaller than a minnow, a saltwater fish in the desert. In spring-time, the males adopt a bright blue hue on their backs. There are not just a few of these tiny fish here and there.

There are hundreds. Thousands of pupfish.

The temperature of Salt Creek couldn't be less than ninety-five degrees fahrenheit. Maybe more. But these tiny creatures have survived the centuries in inches of steaming water.

I remember walking in the three-inch shallows of the brackish Marls - a mangrove system in the Northern Bahamas, and wondered about the tiny fish that darted between my feet in that impossible place.

How did they survive in water that would subside to mushy sand by the next low-tide? How did they survive in hot stagnant water? And now here, how on earth did these mini-fish get here? How does this genus survive both here in Death Valley, and in places so far away, like the Bahamas?

Questions like these will be raised by the Supreme Court. Until then, let's step back in time.

Badwater, Death Valley

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California. The lowest point in North America, with an elevation of 282 feet below sea level.

Death Valley is often described as being an ancient place, frozen in its quiet and dry state throughout eternity. Recently though, it was really quite wet. Go back 10,000 years. A speck on the timeline of Earth life and Death Valley was fed by three Ice age rivers. The rivers filled the valley up to six hundred feet deep. This lake - Lake Manly - was connected to other lakes of the time. The Desert Southwest was the dumping grounds for melted ice, and all this water made vast thoroughfares for a bounty of fish.

As these desert lakes began to dry up at the end of the ice age, a lot of things simply died. But not the fish. The desert pupfish was prone to mutation, and speciated into the twenty known species and subspecies that exist today in the various small ponds, pools, springs and holes of the American and Mexican deserts.

This creek - such a meager thing, really just springs out of the ground for a few hundred yards. Imagining the extinction of these fellas is easy to do - furious soldiers at their last stand.

The ecosystem of Salt Creek - three inches of water for 200 yards, seems tiny. But one species of pupfish has it worse, and that fact caused quite a raucous. It's called the Devil's Hole pupfish, and the species exists only in one small hole in the Nevada desert. It's in a place called Ash Meadows - a series of spring-fed pools east of Death Valley.

Because of the Devil's Hole Pupfish's isolation, it has grown quite genetically distinct from other pupfishes.

It's unlikely that anybody beyond a handful of scientists would care much about this tiny fish, except for the fact that farmers were keen to use this same series of springs for their crops. In the desert, water is always at a premium. In the late 1960's, at the same time these farmers were eyeing the Ash Meadows land, the Devil's Hole Pupfish was given the endangered species designation. And with only 400 living fish all smaller than an inch long, they in fact are rather endangered.

To deny the land developers and farmers on behalf of a damned fish seemed absurd, and they began a movement. 'Kill the Pupfish' bumperstickers and all. The local newspaper went a step farther, suggesting an efficient poison to end the matter right there.

Death Valley dunes

Water settles between the dunes at Mesquite Dunes, near Stovepipe Wells, Death Valley.

The case went to court, and the issue ultimately centered on water rights. Does the shitty minnow have right to the water, or do we the generous and humble farmers and developers of this great land? More 'Save the Pupfish' bumperstickers were showing up on cars, and an environmental commission was formed.

The closest town of any significance to Ash Meadows is a place called Pahrump. Pahrump is Nevada's most well known brothel town, and home to the famous Chicken Ranch brothel. It's also known for gunslinging clubs, and a man named Art Bell, who hosts a talk radio show late at night about aliens, UFO's and the supernatural. Here in Pahrump, it's easy to see where the other side comes from. It’s a place of unkempt billboards and ugly homes, the car dealerships and food chains being for the worse. It's a place not entirely unlike the third world, where the priority is self-preservation, and not much more.

By 1972, the case went federal and the fish won.

Even now, saved by the Supreme Court from man, the fish at Devil's Hole are constantly at risk from nature itself. Several times - bad weather or bad water, the fish have almost perished.

The Devil's Hole, which has since become regulated by Death Valley National Park in California, is now plastered with complicated bits of machinery meant to help ensure the population's survival.

One pupfish scientist is often asked, what good are they? To which he answers, 'what good are you?' This same scientist once held the entire population of one species of the pupfish in two buckets of water.

Of course, extinction happens.

But not at the pace created by man. In a short period of time, say between 1900 and now, we have set in motion the beginning of the most accelerated rate of extinction in Earth's history.

Death Valley Pupfish

Male and female Death Valley pupfish during spawning season.

To attempt to save every small and insignificant fish and snail and mushroom, we are at least giving consciousness to the idea that we are starting to do something to slow the end of nature. Micromanaging pupfish may not be the way to curb extinction, but at least it's a start.

The thirteen species of desert pupfishes and the approximately seven additional subspecies will probably never serve much to man. But does that make them less valuable? Sure - they are a puzzle piece of our world's natural history. But the mission of saving endangered species is grand, and grand missions require small puzzle pieces.

Understanding how these fish lost their lake 10,000 years ago is one thing. But how did they get here in the first place? I don't think anyone knows the precise natural history of pupfishes, but they are widespread throughout North America. There are 119 species, living anywhere from the Atlantic Seaboard to Central Mexico.

My guess is that they evolved somewhere in the West Indies, followed seashores and rivers and maybe even oceans through the Isthmus - through Panama when Panama was water - and made their way north into the Sea of Cortez and finally up the Colorado River.

Back then, the Sea of Cortez was connected to the Salton Sea by a large, slow river. And the Salton Sea had river connections to all the lakes north of them.

As primarily freshwater or brackish water dwellers in tropical climates - places like mangroves and tidal flats, the pupfish required, and evolved a habit of high variability.

There have probably been many variations, many species, along the way.

Even though there was plenty of water in the deserts in the ice age, it had already been an arid region for millenia. Death Valley is adjacent to the high Sierra mountains, just to the west of here. These peaks have been growing steadily, and as they grew in the ancient ages, they blocked more and more Pacific moisture from the regions just to the east. Slowly, green forests dissipated and gave way to saltgrass and creosote.

The fight for the pupfish became national news in 1970, and it was the singular event that catapulted a national consciousness for the idea that man is plucking at the thin membrane of life. Endangered species’ became backyard conversation.

Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley, California

A sea of sand in Death Valley: the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

We have counted about 1.5 million species and categorized them. The real number of species on Earth is probably between four million to a hundred million. If you are invited on a deepwater submarine and descend into the darkness, at the right place, you'll see species that have never been named. Take a sample of the water, and things get even more complicated.

But the more complicated species - the flowering plants, the fish, the reptiles, the amphibians, the birds and the mammals - they are complex, and countable. If we decelerate their extinctions one unit at a time, we can lay the groundwork for a healthy planet.

The world has undergone amazing progress since 1900 - literacy rates, medicines, gross national products - the twentieth century has been amazing. If you look at a map of the Earth from say 1948 and all autocracies and communist regimes are in red, and all multiparty democracies are in blue, the map will be mostly red.

That same map today is almost all blue.

But Earth is more than that – it’s a thin membrane where we act as the mind and all the other species its body. Allowing the membrane of life to pulsate onward - that is what it’s all about. If we remember that we are part of nature, and all our joy is connected directly to it – then we’ll realize that we’re really just saving ourselves.

With meager resources in law and economics, we can only concentrate on those most majestic of species – the Siberian tiger, the California condor. The animals that ordinary people can get behind. But ecosystems care not for majesty. The idea is to shift salvation from carrying two buckets of pupfish to ending HIPPO. HIPPO is an anacronym for habitat destruction, invasive species, pollution, population, and overharvesting. Keeping humans from HIPPO is big stuff.

Even in industrialized nations like the U.S., however, selling this sort of thing to the public is a tough business. There’s a writer – he’s kind of like a conservative Michael Moore, although instead of being fat, ugly and filled with generalizations, he is smug, pretentious and filled with generalizations. Thomas Sowell, unfortunately, gets more play in the media than say, the guy with the two buckets of pupfish. In 2001, Sowell was mad as hell at what he called, ‘the green bigots’ – people like you and me.

The problem was that the red-legged frog - a threatened species – was coming into conflict with zoning for future development on the west coast. Sowell, in his essay “Green bigots versus human beings”, claimed that frogs may be a species, but not red-legged frogs. He claimed that environmentalists make up whatever they want to call a species.

The opposite is true – frogs – as we all know - are not a species, nor are they classified by environmentalists. Frog is a family – in that two hundred year old system of classification which goes from kingdom to phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. There are errors in our system of classification – but not the kind of trivial error Sowell imagines, which would equate humans to say, the wooly spider monkeys of Bolivia. The errors in classifying only hints at how detailed our system of classification is. There are 4,740 known frog species in the world. Hundreds more are being discovered each decade, and hundreds more have already been lost forever.

The problem with Sowell’s logic – the idea that no development should ever be subsided, ever, for the sake of saving species, goes against the same logic that his ilk used to denounce Malthus. Humanity, they say, is always able to produce more crops, with more yield, and we can keep fitting more people on Earth, fixing the small environmental consequences as we go along. Under this logic – isn’t man ingenious enough to not need that particular forest, this particular stretch of desert of coastline? He writes, “Species could not have survived the evolutionary changes of the earth if they didn't have some adaptability…” This is why, he says, spotted owls will be able to adapt to skyscrapers.

Malthus, although maligned by time for his formula for how many people can fit on Earth, grew more wary of his formula with time. Regardless of our ingenuity – the constraints of Earth’s ecosystem are not open to interpretation. There is a finite amount of resources. Eerily, the common definition of economics – the tool that we will ultimately use to justify tackling HIPPO, is this:

The scientific study of the choices made by individuals and societies in regard to the alternative uses of scarce resources.

Reading Sowell is scary, because we know that before tackling HIPPO, we’ve gotta tackle the people who believe people like him. The consequence of a world he may imagine – one with cows and corn, and green grass, lots of concrete and ten billion people, but not much else – that is not a world worth living in. That’s a world committed to trillions in dollars towards hydrological engineering, mass starvation, disease, uncontrollable climates, and empty wilderness.

Still, the pupfish remains. The last of what were the inhabitants of the Northern Cortez. Trickling, fighting for life, swimming downriver to who knows where. Too bad they don’t know that the struggle of the twenty-first century started here, a tiny creek in Death Valley.

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Notes on the pupfish of Death Valley and the Desert Southwest.

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