June 8, 2005

Scientists Nudge Fish Closer to Extinction

LAS VEGAS (AP) -- Scientists trying to study the endangered Devils Hole pupfish near Death Valley inadvertently nudged the endangered fish closer to extinction.

About 80 of the inch-long silvery pupfish died in traps set last year in Devils Hole, a limestone cavern about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists said Monday.

The total killed could be a third or more of the adult fish left alive in the wild, officials told The Las Vegas Sun in a report Tuesday.

"It was a very tragic occurrence, one that we never thought would happen," said Linda Greene, chief of resource management for Death Valley National Park.

The traps, which were chained to the top of the hole, were designed to count young fish larva but instead trapped the adult pupfish.

They were dislodged in flash floods that occurred Sept. 11 throughout the desert area that includes Devils Hole, Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and Death Valley.

"The irony was not lost on us," Greene said.

Only 180 Devils Hole pupfish were counted in 2003. When the number of adult fish drops below 100, scientists consider the possibility that the pupfish may not survive.

Scientists and conservationists have been fighting to save the pupfish for decades. In the mid-20th century, springs forming Ash Meadows were used to water farms that grew cotton, melons, fruit and nut trees.

Farmers pumping ground water onto those fertile fields visibly lowered the water level in Devils Hole.

The Devils Hole pupfish was given endangered species status and, after a long court battle in the 1970s, the water it needs to survive.