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Big Step In Restoring Tribal Pupfish Habitat

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Owens pupfish | Photo: CDFW

A Native tribe based in the Owens Valley is applying for a permit to move an endangered desert fish to a specially prepared refuge on the tribe's land, in an effort to restore a species that was once vital to the tribe's survival.

The Bishop Paiute Tribe, whose 2,000 or so enrolled members live on and near the tribe's 875-acre reservation in Bishop, has been working to restore the federally endangered Owens pupfish along with other native fish species on the reservation's Native Fish Refuge. A pair of ponds at the Refuge have been ready to receive the fish since 2012, when the conservation area formally opened. But these days you can't just toss an endangered fish in a bucket and move it to a new pond. That would put the Tribe in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

So for the last couple of years, the Tribe has been working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to craft a permit that would allow moving the pupfish to their new home. And members of the public will have an opportunity to comment on that permit starting Thursday.

The Owens pupfish, Cyprinodon radiosus, is the largest of the pupfish species native to the California desert, reaching up to two inches in length. Once widespread up and down the Owens Valley in the network of ponds and sloughs that make up the Owens River watershed, the Owens pupfish was once a staple food item for the local Paiute, who caught fish by the hundreds and dried them for storage and later eating.

That bounty ended with the advent of European settlement and resource exploitation. Water diversions and introduced predatory fish such as largemouth bass depleted the Owens pupfish's numbers to the point where it was actually considered extinct by the mid-1940s.

Fortunately for the pupfish, a small group held on in a series of pools in Fish Slough, north of Bishop. Rediscovered in 1964, the fish were listed in 1967 as Endangered under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, a precursor to the current Endangered Species Act.

In 1969, as Fish Slough was drying up, those survivors were transplanted in a hurry to more hospitable locations. That hurried relocation provided what's likely one of the best California wildlife protection anecdotes ever. As biologist Edwin Philip Pister wrote in Natural History Magazine in 1993, he was alone when he realized a temporary holding pool in which every member of the species had been placed was actually killing the fish due to lack of oxygen. He literally loaded the total world population of Owens pupfish into two buckets and lugged them across the treacherous footing of Fish Slough. As Pister wrote:

Although the passage of time has obscured my exact words and thoughts as I lugged two heavy buckets and their precious cargo (each weighing more than thirty pounds) over the treacherous marsh terrain, I remember mumbling something like: "Please don't let me stumble. If I drop these buckets we won't have another chance!" I distinctly remember being scared to death. I had walked perhaps fifty yards when I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species. If I had tripped over a piece of barbed wire or stepped into a rodent burrow, the Owens pupfish would now be extinct! But good fortune smiled upon us, and the recovery continues today.

It does indeed. In 2009 USFWS estimated that somewhere between 1,500 and 20,000 Owens pupfish lived in five populations in the Owens Valley. (The roughness of the estimate comes from difficulty in counting fish in heavily vegetated Fish Slough.)

But with just five populations, the species remains quite vulnerable to the same threats that almost drove it to extinction. On a number of occasions over the last few decades the species' numbers have been set back dramatically by individual largemouth bass that find their way into the pupfish's refuges, likely due to illegal releases by anglers.

Which makes the Bishop Paiute Tribe's Native Fish refuge all the more crucial if the Owens pupfish is to survive into the next century. Under a so-called "enhancement of survival permit," the Tribe would be allowed to transplant pupfish from Fish Slough and two other refuges in the Owens Valley into its two pupfish ponds. The permit includes a "Safe Harbor" agreement that ensures the Tribe won't suddenly see greater restrictions on its use of the land should the pupfish do well there.

Those ponds's bases are raised in the center to provide pupfish with the shallow water habitat they prefer, but include fringing moats about a yard deep to slow encroachment by reeds that would eat away at that habitat. The tribe's biologists have put in native plants such as three-square bulrush to help keep invasive plants out. Both the tribe and USFWS speculate that if this project works to boost Owens pupfish numbers, the permit could be extended to more and more Owens River tributaries in the fish's historic range.

Public comment on the proposed permit will be accepted for 30 days.

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