Tribal leaders, members and environmental officials were joined by state and local environmental and other government officials gathered Tuesday to celebrate the completion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act portion of the Bishop-Paiute Native Fish Refuge, which is on the Bishop reservation.
In an effort to preserve the endangered pupfish, a species that was crucial, as a winter protein source, to Native people’s survival for thousands of years, the project included construction of two habitat ponds for a rare species of native fish as well as a half-mile of interpretive pathways.
In the larger scope of things, the ponds serve as a cultural link between the past and the present.
Brian Adkins, director of environmental operations for Bishop Paiute Tribe, has been working on this project from its inception 10 years ago, when there was only a $5,000 budget for planning, leading and collaborating to get to this point, the commemorative ceremony in honor of a tiny survivor of the ravages foreign species.
At the ceremony, special guest and fishery biologist Phil Pister, now retired from California Fish and Game, explained that at the end of the last ice age there were “lots of lakes and lots of pupfish.” Then, in the mid-1800s, “white men” came and it all “fell apart … To show how close to extinction this little fellow was, in 1969 I held the entire world population in two buckets … They were one step away from extinction. Where we go from here, is up to us.”
The goal of the project was to provide a home for the endangered, native species, however, introduction of the pupfish themselves has come to a screeching halt – at least for right now.
The LADWP has raised concerns that, should the endangered species break out of the recently constructed ponds and into the agency’s system of ditches and canals, those parts of their system would become off-limits to protect the pupfish.
Because the pupfish are endangered, if DWP kills any in the process of cleaning a nearby ditch, they would be liable, facing heavy penalties.
So in a sense, the laws that were created to protect the pupfish are now the laws that are standing in the way of them getting into this refuge to be protected.
Adkins said no pupfish could be released this week without the go-ahead from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He added that project organizers have “had a great working relationship with them,” and the team will continue working to obtain an incidental-take permit, which will allow the tribe to move forward.
The Safe Harbor Policy’s incidental-take permit allows landowners to “increase habitat, introduce habitat and introduce endangered species” without negative impacts if some endangered animals are inadvertently killed in the process.
The tribe has been planning from the beginning to contain the pupfish in the ponds, but concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of the measures in place.
“We do have a barrier that (the pupfish) shouldn’t go through but I don’t think (LADWP) thinks it’s sufficient; it’s not foolproof,” Williams said.
While the introduction of the pupfish is being held up by bureaucratic red tape, the tribe is moving forward with its plans to provide a new educational refuge for residents and a glimpse of how the fish have played a roll in the Owens Valley since before recorded history.
Adkins said the tribe hopes to connect the pond with elementary and middle school via a gated path. The idea is that it would provide easy access for students and teachers for science, art and other educational tours and fieldtrips, which may include use of Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center.
That’s where Raymond Andrews, of the Tribal Preservation Office comes in. He will lead educational Fish Refuge tours along the interpretive, plaque-lined pathways, educating visitors about the fish as well as the refuge’s plant life and their medicinal and other uses
“This (refuge) is here especially for the children,” Andrews said. But for now, Andrews, mindfully honoring nature, said, “we don’t’ want to disturb the little fish” until they get established. Right now, they are wondering “Who are all these people looking at us.”
According to Andrews, “A lot of our (tribal) members haven’t seen (pupfish), the original fish that was here.” Now they will “know that we did fish. Even though we are little bitty guys, they were still used.… We are hoping to reeducate the public and to educate the new ones that are coming here.”
On the newly-planted shores of the serene pond, surrounded by flitting dragonflies, Adkins talked about the habitat’s ecosystem. Though several other fish, such as the Spotted Dace, will inhabit the refuge, pupfish from Fish Slough, Warm Springs and an artesian well below Independence, will be the main feature. While pupfish are hearty, enduring a wide temperature range, they breed in summer, so the shallow nature of the pond allows it to absorb heat from the sun more efficiently and allow them to breed at a greater rate.
A four-foot trough around the edges provides protection from birds such as herons and “encroachment from cattails because it’s deep and also provides a refuge from a really hard freeze in winter.”
Other flora was just as carefully chosen as well. Medicinal Yerba Manza were planted as well as tri-corner bull rush, because they out-compete the more invasive hard-stem bullrush, which would fill in the pond very quickly. Creeping wild rice grows at the outer perimeter of pond’s bank.
Anne Castle, assistant secretary of water and science with the U.S. Department of the Interior, called the project “a collaboration of a number of different agencies: Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Calif Fish and game and the tribal departments.”
She went on to say that the bureau was glad to be there “to share in the blessing of this special occasion … We celebrate with you this wetlands and wild life preservation,” and added that “many others are here in spirit.”
Castle went on to say, “this is a significant step toward sustainability of the Owens Valley Paiute culture,” its natural fish population and the entire ecosystem.… “Water is life, we all know that.”
She lauded the tribal fish refuge area program’s multiple benefits: a habitat and recovery for the pupfish, providing work for tribal members, right historic wrongs, provide education for the next generations and even address mosquito and drainage issues.
Adkins summed up the delicate balance that the Bishop-Paiute Native Fish Refuge represents. The whole ecosystem, in fact, the whole project is “a little complicated. There’s a lot to the recovery of a species and how to do it efficiently. It’s kind of a challenge or else it would have been done everywhere.