Fish story

Private property owners can be in deep trouble if they injure or kill a representative of an endangered species on their own land. There have even been cases of government agents raiding private sanctuaries — mere amateurs can’t be allowed to undertake such efforts without government supervision, you see. They might not know what they’re doing.

Unlike the government experts?

Out near Death Valley, the government has had responsibility for “protecting” the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish since 1952. But the population of iridescent blue minnows has been falling ever since.

Environmentalists at first blamed groundwater pumping, which lowered the water level of the isolated limestone sinkhole. But they won that battle — water pumping for human uses in the surrounding area was sharply curtailed.

Nonetheless, over the past decade, “for as yet unknown reasons, we’ve seen a gradual decline in population,” James Deacon, a University of Nevada emeritus professor and leading expert on the pupfish, told the Los Angeles Times two years ago.

Mr. Deacon discovered the government’s security fences rimming Devil’s Hole has prevented gravel and pebbles — needed to renew the spawning area — from washing into the pool. The professor also expressed concern that a metal walkway, suspended over the pool and used by federal divers to avoid stepping on the rock shelf, was impacting the fish’s environment.

But all that pales next to the pupfish crisis of Sept. 11, 2004, when empty, unattended fish traps that had been stacked on dry land by visiting researchers were sent tumbling into the pool by a flash flood.

“A week later, we returned to discover jars floating on the shelf, or broken,” recalled Death Valley biologist Linda Manning. “Many of those intact had expired fish in them. We lost about 80 fish” — half the remaining population.

At the time, park officials kept this iatrogenic disaster a secret. Bad PR, you see.

Now, 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas in the headwaters of the Muddy River, biologists say they’re worried about a similar sharp drop in the numbers of the isolated Moapa dace, protected by a federal “endangered” listing since 1967.

Two years ago, biologists counted 1,172 dace in the spring pools and streams. But a count last week revealed just 462.

One federal official speculates recent efforts to protect the fish may have killed them instead. Restoration crews have been rebuilding stream channels and tearing out non-native vegetation, including some of the imported palm trees that now surround the Warm Springs area where dace are concentrated.

That work may have disrupted the dace’s spawning and forced the fish into areas where they can’t thrive.

Invading non-native tilapia may be part of the problem, as are beavers. Two of the tenacious dam builders were trapped and killed in recent months to halt the destruction of stream habitat — despite the fact beavers are a perfectly natural element of the historical habitat.

Who can be sure a beaver pond might not have helped? What native shade trees were planted to replace the sheltering palms? Do the federal engineers have a control sample and solid research results — or are they just making all this up as they go along?

Green extremists may be just as glad such isolated minnow populations aren’t recovering. The Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity this month announced plans to sue the federal government over its protection of the dace, using the little critter’s problems as an excuse to block large-scale groundwater pumping planned in the area by the Southern Nevada Water Authority and others.

In moments of candor, environmentalists admit such isolated species are a mere cover for their efforts to halt any change or development in the “macro” environment. Nothing would mess up such plans worse than if the federal “experts” were to actually succeed in restoring those species.

No, endangered and on “life support” is just where they want them.

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