Population decline of rare desert fish has a lesson for Alaskans

Derek Hinckley/ Sun Star Contributor 

April 15, 2014


The Devils Hole Pupfish has been vulnerable since the species was discovered in the early twentieth century, though the fish didn’t receive official recognition as an endangered species until 1967. The pupfish population, which occupies a small, limestone cavern filled with 92-degree water from a regional groundwater aquifer in the Mojave Desert, has precipitously declined from a height of 500 fish to a recent record low of 32 fish.

At 3:30pm on April 18th Michael R. Bower, the Program Manager for the Southeast Alaska Inventory and Monitoring Network, will deliver a presentation in room 214 of the O’Neill Building at UAF discussing the challenges and lessons learned from efforts to conserve this dwindling species.

Bower previously spent four years studying the Devils Hole Pupfish as a fish biologist for Death Valley National Park. “I was actually hired kind of in the middle of the conservation crisis for this species,” he says. “At one point, the population dropped to a low point of 38 fish, which was at the time the lowest on record and Death Valley National Park responded by hiring myself and committing to a new program of conservation for this species trying to recover it.”

Much of Bower’s upcoming presentation will focus on the various theories that have been proposed to explain the pupfish’s decline. Some scientists believe that global climate change might be raising the temperature of the fish’s habitat, making the already harsh environment even more inhospitable. Another theory, though thought to be a less likely explanation, speculates that the sediment dynamics have changed within the cavern, which has closed off sediment interstices, or small gaps and cracks in the walls of the cavern that previously provided space for eggs to be laid and hatchlings to grow. Other theories involve disease, inbreeding depression and changes in the availability of food.

“We know very little about how this fish actually relates to its natural habitat,” says Bower. Unfortunately, there is little room for experimentation. “When you’re faced with a potential population extinction, you just can’t tolerate the risk that you are wrong. So what’s been really important is to think, ‘What can we do to address each one of these hypotheses as if they were the single reason for the population decline?’” Given the precariously small size of the pupfish population, “There’s no room for error.”

Though the Devils Hole Pupfish and its natural environment are so unique that there is no analogous species, Bower still believes that the lessons learned from efforts to conserve the pupfish can be applied to other endangered or threatened species. “The Devils Hole Pupfish story has been one where there were decades of benign neglect before ultimately another population decline. In those intervening decades, a lot of people involved lament not having invested more in developing strong, interagency, collaborative partnerships,” says Bower.

With unprecedented declines in Alaska king salmon being reported by the Department of Fish and Game and concerns about the sustainability of other key species, the need to understand effective conservation seems to be especially pressing for Alaskans. “Just because there isn’t a crisis doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be developing partnerships to pursue natural resource management,” Bower concludes.

Bower’s presentation will be conducted via videoconference from Juneau on April 18th at 3:30pm. UAF will host the event in room 214 of the O’Neill Building. For more information, contact Keith Criddle at kcriddle@alaska.edu.


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