The Bishop Paiute Tribe Native Fish Refuge continues its efforts to preserve native desert fish populations while creating opportunities for cultural and environmental education, preserving tribal links to its past and furnishing a public recreation venue.
Since the refuge’s grand opening on May 1, things have progressed. The wetland habitat, located in the tribe’s 25-acre Conservation Open Space Area, continues to be improved to help preserve several Owens Valley native fish species which are threatened with extinction, said Brian Adkins, director of the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Environmental Management Office. These species include the Owens tui chub, Owens sucker, Owens speckled dace and, most notably, the Owens pupfish. The first three currently inhabit the east refuge pond.
However the west and middle ponds, designated for the pupfish, still stand empty. This is because the pupfish is on both the California fully-protected species and federal Endangered Species Act lists – the designations differ in important ways, explained Adkins. The ESA allows for incidental – or unavoidable – take, while the state absolutely prohibits it “under virtually any circumstances” for certain species. The pupfish is one of those.
“The very laws designed to protect endangered species may end up causing their demise,” said Adkins. They will “inbreed, decline and go extinct under the existing law.” As it stands, off-reservation neighboring landowners, such as Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, couldn’t maintain their state-regulated waterways for fear of killing even a single pupfish in the process, Adkins said. The tribe has been working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service on a Safe Harbor Agreement to allow release of the pupfish into refuge ponds, he added – pupfish would be harvested from Fish Slough, Mule Spring and an artesian well south of Independence.
The tribe is also collaborating with DFG and DWP to design a study that will explore the one exception to the rule: “incidental-take for this species can be granted if required by necessary scientific research which includes species recovery efforts,” Adkins said. “The larger question is, will the state grant incidental-take protection for the study and will that protection exist in perpetuity for the ditches in question.”
“Yes” to both questions, is the “only acceptable outcome for DWP,” Adkins said.
The tribe may have no choice but to request that the California Legislature remove pupfish from the fully-protected list. If this were to happen, not only could the pupfish be introduced into the refuge ponds, but waterways throughout the valley could be evaluated as potentional pupfish habitats and that “could add up to dramatically increasing the size of their habitat.
Progress on the facility itself also continues. There is an aquarium display case and informational kiosk station, all constructed by the tribe’s Community Development Department inside the Shoshone-Paiute Cultural Center, to support environmental and other science-based education. Two 40-gallon tanks will serve as acclimatizing and display environments. After the fish are acclimatized, they will go into a 125-gallon habitat tank, and the tanks will serve as “a kind of trail head marker to encourage people to get out on the refuge path,” said Tribal Chairman Chad Delgado, Jr.
The refuge can be accessed from the Cultural Center parking lot, the US Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management parking lot off of West Line Street and the pathway that crosses See Vee Lane. The pathways are important, said Adkins, providing “more opportunities for health walks, exercise, bird watching, species recovery and environmental and cultural education.”
And the refuge is made comfortable and safe for the public by the Environmental Management Office’s mosquito abatement, invasive weed, and hazardous fuels reduction programs, said Adkins. “As interest develops, narrower pathways will be developed to allow deeper access into the wilds of the refuge.”
The trail heads east to the three refuge ponds, winding through a Black Willow forest. “The five-foot hedge of native sunflowers on either side of the trail was spectacular during the summer,” said DFG Senior Biologist Steve Parmenter. Tall, spindly evening primrose; tiny pale purple asters; and deep purple thistles peek out among thick grasses.
Though the pupfish aren’t there yet, the refuge is teeming with life: several species of dragonflies, water striders, beetles, butterflies, more than 30 bird species, coyote and more, said Adkins.
Parmenter explained some of the intricacies of the west pond. A three-foot deep moat around the ponds’ edges protects them and the fish against hard winter freezes, lateral encroachment by cattail and bulrushes and predators such as heron. Additionally, while they are an extremely hardy species, “pupfish really want sunny, open, shallow water,” especially during breeding season, said Parmenter, so the whole central part of the pond is very shallow, like a submerged plateau.
Around the pond banks, three-square Bulrush and Beaked Spikerush have been strategically cultivated to prevent invasive species getting a foothold and to out-compete invasive, fast-growing Hardstem Bulrushes and cattails, which would otherwise quickly and completely eliminate the ponds’ ability to support pupfish, explained Parmenter.
There are plans to introduce California sensitive-species like the creamy white, three-petaled Inyo County Star-tulip, the Owens Checkerbloom and medicinal plants like the Yerba Manza will be introduced, said Adkins.
The refuge path ends at the east pond near the elementary and middle schools’ gates, constructed to allow school field trips into the area for their use for art, science, music projects, said Adkins. Peter Pumphrey, president of the local Audobon Society chapter, is working with the tribe on ways to provide curriculum-based interpretive and educational outings, he added.
The east pond was created to expand the fishes’ habitat and is being naturally colonized by hybridized tui chubs, speckled dace and suckers migrating in from the Giraud Ditch which originates in Bishop Creek. The pond nestles in native foliage, brown bullhead catfish patrol its bottom, the occasional bullfrog make a perimeter splash and there’s an abundance of inch-long Pacific tree frogs, which change from brown to green with the seasons, said Adkins. More California sensitive-species plants, which were primarily of medicinally value to the tribe and which had died from drought, have been reintroduced here as well.
Back to the star of the show. The pupfish was historically valuable throughout the Owens Valley and is a link to the tribe’s past, said Adkins. “A lot of our tribal members haven’t seen pupfish. The ponds serve as a cultural link between the past and the present,” said Paiute Tribal Historian Raymond Andrews.
Andrews explained that “the species was a winter protein source crucial to our survival for thousands of years.” Paiute women had special implements for different tasks just as cooks today do. Tribal women made large harvesting “baskets, especially woven with proper spacing between the rods for different types of fish.” Pupfish were dried and used in a variety of ways, for example, ground up and mixed into a corn meal stew.
This project isn’t about showcasing the ponds; it’s about working together to protect these fish valley-wide, said Adkins. “Nobody wants to see a species go extinct that is so unique and significant to Owens Valley,. So the battle with nature and bureaucracy goes on.