Sunday, February 8, 2015

Ash Meadows

When HH and I got close to Death Valley on our way from southern Arizona, the GPS kept telling us to turn in at the road leading to Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, miles away from the Valley. It was one of those GPS things that makes no sense, so rather than emulating the Japanese tourists who blindly followed their GPS's directions straight into the ocean, we followed the directions that were painted on brown steel and pounded into the earth. What we didn't find out until later was the GPS was actually correct. Boy, were we sorry for saying bad things about the Garmin.

A researcher in the archives who was interested in pupfish told me about this place. We pass it every time we go from the park to Pahrump (I'm not making that up), Nevada, but it looked like a whole lotta nothin' out there, and kept passing it by. The researcher said it's a wonderful place, so off we went this weekend. He was absolutely right.

The Visitor Center is brand new, open only a month and with exhibits still under construction. No photos of it, but one of the signs outside it spoke about the native people of the area. Ash Meadows is the ancestral land of the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) and Newe (Western Shohone) who consider the spiral formations to represent the rattlesnake who commands respect and watches over the land. The formation below was cited as a representation of the snake.

Behind the visitor center is a one-mile-long boardwalk that leads to Crystal Reservoir and Lower Crystal Marsh, where a small population of Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish lives. Pupfish were named for behavior that appeared as playful as puppies. The behavior, attributed to the males, is related to breeding. Need I say more?

One species can live in as little as one inch of water. Other species tolerate salinity three times greater than the ocean, and another has adapted to water temperature as warm as 110° F. Several species of pupfish are on the Endangered Species list.

In the 1980s a developer saw $$$ in the desert where Ash Meadows now is, and made plans to build 20,000 homes, shopping malls, and other accoutrements of civilization that would have eliminated the habitat of every living creature there, including at least 24 species of plants and animals that live nowhere else on earth. In fact, Ash Meadows has the highest concentration of indigenous life found only in one location than any other local area in the United States and the second greatest in all of North America. Of course there was huge controversy, complete with competing bumper stickers of Kill the Pupfish! and Save the Pupfish! 

In 1983 The Nature Conservancy purchased the 13,000 plus acres, saving 12 major spring systems whose 10,000–year-old “fossil waters” feed numerous pools and riparian systems. Most of the water comes from rain and snowmelt from the Spring Mountains of southern Nevada, taking thousands of years to trickle down the cracks and seep its way into the aquifer. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, custodians of this now-23,000 acre property, is in constant activity to remove exotic plants and animals that divert resources from native species, and to repair the damage that was done by decades of farming. It took the Supreme Court to halt pumping of the aquifers that threatened the tiny habitat of the pupfish.

The turquoise color, even more vibrant in person, is due to being filtered through limestone.

In the only photo of the 2-inch pupfish that remotely turned out, two green females are camouflaged by rippling water. Males are bright, electric blue. I saw many but none stayed still long enough to photograph.

 In stark contrast to the apparent desolation of the Mojave Desert...

is the appearance of oases, described as being like "charms on a bracelet" that appear when the underground Amargosa River breaks the surface. They're breathtaking and unexpected.

We made our way to Devil's Hole, the only place the Devil's Hole pupfish live, and the place the GPS tried to send us on our way to the Valley - because Devil's Hole is actually Death Valley property, wholly surrounded by Ash Meadows NWR.

The iridescent blue inch-long fish's only natural habitat is in the 93 degree waters of Devil's Hole. According to a Fish and Wildlife website, a count of the fish in April 2013 estimated 35 Devils Hole pupfish remained in their natural habitat.  A September count estimated 65 fish. When population counts began in 1972, pupfish numbered around 550 individuals.

Devils Hole pupfish is one of the world’s rarest fishes, spending most of its life in the top 80 feet of the 93° waters of a cavern in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Its habitat is one of the smallest natural ranges known for any vertebrate. The surface water is only about 3x5 feet, but is at least 500 feet deep.

I thought I'd be able to see the fish but this is what greets the visitor.

The cage continues to a platform that is also entirely enclosed, and all that's visible is the small surface area of the water at the mouth of the cave. There isn't anything to see. The fish and their habitat are being protected and that's a good thing.

Finally, I give you this lovely sight, turquoise water vivid against the sober browns and gray-greens of the desert; imagine the 49ers, not believing their eyes. It was no less welcome a sight to me.

Thought of the day:

Water, water, water....There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be. - Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness