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Devil’s Hole pupfish on the brink

Ted Koch, new supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada, said last week that despite millions of dollars and decades of work, it’s unclear the Devil’s Hole pupfish can be saved from extinction.

Since 1967, federal agencies and the Nevada Department of Wildlife have jointly managed efforts to protect the fish and its habitat – a single, water-filled cavern in North America’s hottest, driest desert, 90 miles west of Las Vegas.

Groundwater pumping near Devil’s Hole in the early 1970s triggered a legal fight that landed in the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices sided with the government and ordered land owners to stop using their wells.

The population of the inch-long, neon blue fish climbed gradually during the first 25 years of protection, from about 200 into to the 300 to 500 range.

But the pupfish population peaked at 544 in the fall of 1990, and has declined ever since. The biggest disaster came in 2004, when university researchers left a container of fish traps next to Devil’s Hole and a flash flood dumped the traps into the pool. Some 40 fish, roughly a quarter of the population, were trapped and killed.

The spring count two years later showed just 38 pupfish. By fall, the population had rebounded to 85, but now stands at just 75 adults.

Why aren’t the fish doing better? Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist for the National Park Service, admits comparatively little work has been done to understand the fish’s life cycle and the biological system that sustains it. Has fencing off the hole kept away species that once drank there, impacting the ecosystem in ways not understood?

It would be hard to hate the pupfish. We all pull for such an underdog. Modest efforts to preserve this delicate habitat make sense. But come on. The fish are an evolutionary accident, still hanging on where they were stranded by geologic events tens of thousands of years ago. Unless a viable population can be established elsewhere, some future earthquake or other natural calamity will almost certainly drain or alter their limited habitat sufficiently to kill them off, whether it be 500 years from now or next Tuesday.

Meantime, there are plenty of places where all those millions of dollars could have been put to better use.

New species develop, and old species die off, by the thousands every year. Thus adapting, life has prospered for millions of years. To believe we can or should halt this process in its tracks demonstrates hubris on a dangerous scale.

It’s a measure of the wealth of the nation that we feel we can afford to sacrifice our ability to make a living from some of our lands in order to protect some totemic species. But it’s important to ask which part of “we” is paying those costs. Uncounted in the millions of dollars spent to date in efforts to preserve the pupfish is the unseen cost to adjacent landowners, forbidden to pump from their wells the water that would allow them to make more productive use of their land.

Do such landowners receive federal compensation for this regulatory taking? Rarely.

Meantime, millions of Americans on the East and Gulf Coasts live on what used to be wetlands, long since drained and filled, at the cost of the extinction of who knows how many thousands of uncatalogued subspecies of frogs, minnows, snails and bugs. Why do Americans struggling to make a living in the West now bear so much of the costs of species preservation, alone? How would those voters in Massachusetts and Mississippi respond to a proposed Cranberry Bog Restoration Act, returning those lost malarial swamplands to their pristine state – without any economic compensation?

“Species preservation” has become a cat’s paw, employed to block expansion and productive land use by the invasive species most despised by the green extreme: Homo sapiens himself.

The Endangered Species Act must be revisited and limited to what’s sensible and affordable, with a stipulation that full compensation for any impairment of private land value – including lost opportunities to improve human lives through the development of everything from hospitals to sawmills – must be paid promptly in cash.

Because funds for such purposes are not unlimited, this would require proponents to set up a hierarchy of species to be preserved, with such totemic creatures as the bison and the eagle presumably near the top of the list – as they should have been doing, all along.

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