Sunday, April 23, 2006

Biologists worry as pupfish disappear from Death Valley

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Nev. (AP) - They're kept behind lock and key, protected by barbed wire. They're photographed, hand counted and examined under a spotlight. Their diet, activity, water temperature and unborn offspring are all closely monitored by people put to the task by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And still, the Devils Hole pupfish, isolated in a bottomless hot spring in Death Valley for as many as 60,000 years, is falling off the face of the earth.

Only 38 adult Devils Hole pupfish survived the winter, The Associated Press has learned. That's less than half the population counted last fall, and down from more than 500 that once swam in the red rock hole, the species' only known natural home.

The head count is a disappointment but not a surprise to federal biologists who've been tracking falling numbers since the late 1990s. An accident wiped out as much as half the population in 2004, and the feisty desert fish, named for its puppy-like energy level, has not made the comeback experts had hoped.

No one knows why.

"It's a real mystery," said Bob Williams, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service field supervisor and spokesman for the recovery team working to save the fish in the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, about 100 miles west of Las Vegas. "Everyone wants a silver bullet, but it's not that easy."

Scientists say more is at stake than the existence of an inch-long glint of blue swimming in a hole at the base of an unnamed hill in the Nevada desert. The disappearance of the pupfish in Devils Hole, if caused by a disturbance to its crystal blue waters, could signal the demise of other imperiled desert fish who depend on the same water system.

Perhaps more likely, its extinction would mark the failure of more than 50 years of coordinated preservation efforts - a shortcoming of science.

Devils Hole pupfish were one of the first listed endangered species. A Supreme Court case protects their environment, and desert conservationists have fought to shield them from developers and farmers. But faced with their mysterious disappearance, scientists are acknowledging that all the human attention, and the error that comes with it, may be killing them.

The Devils Hole pupfish could be jeopardy of being loved to death.

Read the rest here.

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