I Am Hopeful for the Devil’s Hole Pupfish

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The last cool place I went before everything shut down was Death Valley National Park, which in addition to all the famous parts also includes one non-contiguous, 40-acre parcel within the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada. The site is called Devil’s Hole. It is a deep underwater cave system nestled in the crag of a scrubby hill whose name I don’t know offhand but in my opinion should be called Devil’s Hill. The Mansons thought the cave was the entrance to underworld, which is not true, but not so wrong that it requires changing the name. According to the National Park Service, the water in Devil’s Hole is 92-degrees year-round—pretty hot!—and the bottom of the cavern “has never been mapped.” Dun dun dun. Devil’s Hole was protected by the park because it is the only remaining habitat on the planet for a tiny little cyprinodontidae, about the size of a silver dollar, called the Devil’s Hole Pupfish.

Over the years, in the interest of preserving this habitat, we—the government, taxpayers, whatever—have turned the hole into something resembling a mini-Supermax prison. When I visited in February, the perimeter was lined with a tall chain link fence with barbed wire on top. There are security cameras along the perimeter and underwater, motion sensors, and seismic monitoring systems. To see the fish, you walk up the hill, through a door in the fence, and then down a long cage-like enclosure to an overlook of an overlook that offers a partial glimpse of the pool from a considerable height above it. Did I see any pupfish? I’ve convinced myself that I did, but it might have just been shadows. There is something wonderfully dissonant about such a magnificent apparatus for something almost invisible. One thinks of Ian Malcom, passing through Isla Nublar, wondering, ah, if there any dinosaurs on the, ah, dinosaur tour.

Being a Devil’s Hole Pupfish is a precarious thing. Their lives are spent in quarantine; they can never leave their home. In fact, they will never travel more than a few feet. Other species of pupfish live in nearby parts of Ash Meadows, but they are forever distanced. Human-induced changes in the water table threaten the Devil’s Hole habitat, as do cruder forms of interference—like when three drunk men broke into the site in 2016, discharged firearms and vomited, and one of them swam naked in the pool, killing a pupfish. (Not a metaphor for our times, just a thing that happened.) The Devil’s Hole Pupfish population has dropped precipitously over the last few decades, and climate change probably isn’t going to do any favors for one of the most immobile populations on earth.

They lack many of the qualities that might sustain other species in the anthropocene. Pupfish are not good to eat—oh God, do not even get any ideas—and you cannot train them to do tricks. I nearly ruined my rental car to perhaps not even see them. And yet we, and they, persist. At a nearby facility, scientists have built a 100,000-gallon, 22-foot-deep replica of Devil’s Hole in an attempt to build up a sort of backup population of pupfish. The park service doubled down on its security measures after the break-in. 

Fences are failures, in many ways—an indictment of people’s propensity to destroy, or in different circumstances, a monument to our fears. But I choose to view this apparatus in a different light. We built a cordon around the rest of the world so that these glorious cave guppies can still live free. It was a weird parting thought these last few months, as humanity frantically scrambled to distance itself from itself. Saving the Pupfish certainly won’t save us. It might not even save them. But in a fucked-up world (I refer you again to the Mansons), we’re trying. I’ll take hope where I can. —Tim Murphy

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