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New tribal ponds may soon provide safe harbor for OV pupfish

July 21, 2014

Brian Adkins, director of the Bishop Paiute Tribe Environmental Management Office, stands in front of the first pond waiting for the Owens Valley pupfish. Photo by Marilyn Blake-Phillip

The ponds at the Bishop Paiute Reservation are one step closer to being “stocked” with fish, one with immeasurable value to the tribe: the Owens Valley pupfish.
The hardy little species once populated valley waters from Fish Slough north of Bishop to the Owens River delta north of Lone Pine and served as a food source to the Native Americans. The ponds constructed specifically for the long anticipated arrival of pupfish represent the one opportunity for the Tribe to preserve the culturally important species, according to Brian Adkins, director of the Tribe’s Environmental Management Office.
Both plans and the ponds, located on the Tribe’s Conservation Open Space Area, have been in the works since 2002. The step closer comes in the form of a proposed safe harbor agreement between the Tribe and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially published July 17, opening a 30-day comment period. The agreement allows non-Federal property owners to contribute to the recovery of a species identified in the Endangered Species Act, in exchange for considerations down the line.
Once the comments are in, the USFWS proposal may take “a few months” before it becomes an agreement, according to Ashley Spratt with the USFWS Ventura office.
The first of two pupfish ponds in the 25-acre COSA, with trailheads at the Paiute Shoshone Cultural Center on West Line Street, at See Vee Lane and at the U.S. Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management office parking lot, was completed in May 2012. The two years between then and now have been focused on what Adkins describes as “the nuances” in state and federal law.
The federal ESA allows for unavoidable take of listed species; the California Fully Protected Act is more rigid, prohibiting virtually any take of an endangered species, even for preservation efforts. In essence, the pupfish could not be moved to the habitat created on tribal lands. The one possible exception to California is if the incidental take is required by “necessary scientific research which includes species recovery efforts.”
The Tribe explored the scientific research angle with California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “It became clear that this, at best, could provide only short-term protection,” said Adkins, “and would not be a long-term solution for recovery.”
The safe harbor agreement specifically outlines conditions under which incidental take can occur during the process of moving the pupfish to their new sanctuary, limiting the number of fish that could be removed to 10 percent of the source population. It also specifies barriers to be incorporated into the ponds to prevent the fish from migrating off the reservation.
“The fish will move to the ponds only after the downstream barriers are installed and inspected,” said Adkins, “or when an acceptable revision is made to CA 5515 (the enabling legislation for the state Fully Protected Act) and all necessary legal protections are in place to protect the interests of downstream landowners.”
The OV pupfish currently lives at Mule Spring, Fish Slough and at LADWP’s Well 368. According to the agreement, moving pupfish from those locations to the COSA ponds would “create the most genetically diverse contemporary population of Owens pupfish and reduce the effects” of habitat fragmentation and genetic isolation.
This wouldn’t be the first time the fish was moved as a preservation measure. For nearly 30 years the pupfish was thought to be extinct, largely due to the introduction of predatory fish in valley waters as well as diversion and decreased flows in the Owens River. In mid-1964, the small population at Fish Slough was discovered and the CDFW began the process of recovering the species, moving them to appropriate habitat before the federal or state laws were in place. During the record-setting winter of 1968-69, the pupfish was again threatened with sure extinction. Phil Pister, a fishery biologist for CDFW, now retired, tells the story vividly.
The pupfish were confined to a small pond below the slough’s headwater springs. The heavy winter rains had generated dense vegetation growth up and down the valley and in August 1969, that growth had begun to deplete the fish’s waters. One of Pister’s assistants discovered that the pond was nearly dried up, setting into motion a frantic effort to move the fish to safe waters in the only vessels immediately available – buckets. Eight hundred of the pond’s inhabitants were moved, half to wire mesh cages in the main channel of the slough as an emergency measure and half to a spot across the slough, to guarantee that, worse-case scenario, at least half of the re-located fish would survive.
Pister went to double check on the first location before the crew took a break and found that the fish were in trouble. The wire cages had been placed in eddies away from the main flow of water. The low flow and subsequent low dissolved oxygen levels had caused near-fatal stressing of the fish. Pister had two buckets to move the fish upstream; he relocated the mesh cages and hauled the 30-lb. buckets across the rough terrain with the frightening realization that he held an entire species in those buckets.
The Tribe has taken equally heroic efforts to guarantee the pupfish’s safety in the completed, 4,000 square-foot pond.
The COSA is home to a total of four small ponds. Two of those are dedicated to schools of other indigenous fish: the Owens sucker, Owens speckled dace and the Owens tui chub. The pupfish will be isolated in their own ponds with measures that ensure they won’t migrate to the two non-pupfish ponds or that the three species won’t invade the pupfish-specific ponds. Groundwater is the primary source of pond water with backup lines installed from irrigation water originating in Bishop Creek.
The ponds were designed to create a sustainable habitat for the pupfish with three square bulrush and beaked spike rush planted on the banks to prevent invasion from non-desirable vegetation. A deep-water moat also discourages invasion vegetation and protects the pupfish from hard winter freezes as well as predators like herons. The central part of the pond is a shallow, underwater plateau providing the warmer water temperatures and open area the fish prefer, especially during spawning season.
“While the federal safe harbor regulation is a powerful tool that landowners can use to help species recovery on their lands,” said Adkins, “the Tribe recognizes the difficulty of local recovery efforts off of the reservation.” The Tribe will continue its efforts to protect the native Owens Valley pupfish by working with state and local agencies to identify non-tribal lands that can provide safe harbor for the species.

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