Homeless fish may find shelter at Springs Preserve

The Pahrump poolfish was forced from its home and onto the endangered species list decades ago by groundwater pumping that drained its spring-fed habitat at the southern tip of Nye County.

Now the Las Vegas Valley Water District wants to establish a new home for the poolfish on a piece of valley property with a similar history.

District officials are working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Nevada Department of Wildlife to establish a reserve population of Pahrump poolfish at the Springs Preserve, the district-owned attraction at U.S. Highway 95 and Valley View Boulevard.

The district plans to introduce the speckled, 3-inch fish to a series of nine ponds now being built where the springs and streams that welcomed the valley’s first settlers were pumped into oblivion in the early 1960s in service of the growing city.

Zane Marshall, director of resources and facilities for the district and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, said the poolfish should fit nicely into the story the preserve is trying to tell.

“Part of the Springs Preserve’s mission is to talk about natural resource management in the Southwest,” he said.

The fish also will provide a more tangible service by feeding on mosquito larvae.

“The poolfish will work for us in these ponds,” Marshall said.

Fish without a home

The Pahrump poolfish was listed as endangered in 1967, and it was effectively extinct in the wild by the early 1970s.

As the story goes, noted UNLV biologist and desert fish expert Jim Deacon carried the last native members of the species out of Pahrump in a bucket in 1971 to keep it from disappearing forever.

By 1975, Manse Spring in Pahrump had been pumped dry, taking with it the poolfish’s entire habitat.

Today, roughly 20,000 of the adaptable little fish survive in three man-made lifeboats: Lake Harriet at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park in Red Rock Canyon; Corn Creek at Desert National Wildlife Refuge, 25 miles northwest of Las Vegas; and Shoshone Ponds in White Pine County’s vast Spring Valley, about 250 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

The Springs Preserve would become the fourth reserve population and the first new one to be established in 30 years. If the effort proves successful, Marshall said, it could lead regulators to “down-list” or even “de-list” the species.

“This is an opportunity for the poolfish as far as we’re concerned,” said Brandon Senger, a supervisory fisheries biologist for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Environmentalists largely agree, though some question the motives behind the move.

Rob Mrowka is senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity in Nevada. He said he certainly favors establishing another viable population of Pahrump poolfish, but not if it’s being done to clear the way for the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s plan to siphon groundwater from Spring Valley and across rural eastern Nevada.

The Shoshone Ponds and its endangered fish could complicate the groundwater project, so Mrowka wonders if Las Vegas water officials are trying to find a way to replace that population with one at the Springs Preserve.

“It strikes me that with each move, the fish has become more a zoo exhibit rather than a feature of a functioning ecosystem,” Mrowka said in an email. “Unfortunately there are literally hundreds of species that are being threatened by the SNWA project, and most will not be saved by moving them. It is time for the SNWA to abandon its proposed mining of ancient groundwater that the creatures and rural communities rely on.”

‘Not going anywhere’

Even if Las Vegas water officials do want the poolfish out of their way in Spring Valley — and Marshall insists that isn’t their goal — it’s not for them to to decide.

As Senger points out, the Shoshone Ponds sit on public land, and the poolfish that have lived there since 1976 are monitored and maintained by federal and state regulators.

“That population at Shoshone is critically important to us,” he said. “Those fish are not going anywhere.”

If and when the decision is made to establish a new population at the Springs Preserve, Senger said the ponds there probably will be stocked with poolfish from Shoshone, Spring Mountain Ranch or both. But only a small sampling from those groups, perhaps as few as 100 fish, would be needed to start a new refuge population, he said.

Marshall expects it take up to two years for the Springs Preserve to get all the necessary permits in place and its ponds ready to accept poolfish.

The first major step came earlier this month, when the water district board approved what is known as a Safe Harbor Agreement that allows the agency to take in a federally protected species without restricting other activities and land use at the preserve.

If the arrangement works out, Marshall said the ponds there might day serve as a refuge for the endangered relict leopard frog, a rare amphibian once thought extinct along the Virgin and Colorado rivers before being discovered anew near Lake Mead in 1991.

In the meantime, Senger said, the poolfish recovery team is concentrating on trying to maintain and expand the populations it already has.

At Spring Mountain State Park, home to the bulk of the species, biologists are monitoring a growing threat from non-native crayfish that showed up there in 2013.

“We haven’t seen a drastic drop in the poolfish population yet, but it still remains a big concern for us,” Senger said.

A similar crayfish invasion at Corn Creek wiped out all of the Pahrump poolfish there in 1998.

Senger said it took until two years ago to eliminate the crayfish. The first crop of reintroduced poolfish are now swimming around in the spring-fed waters of Corn Creek, doing their part to save themselves.

“It’s promising,” Senger said. “They started spawning immediately.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow him: @RefriedBrean

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