The death of a tiny fish in the desert

In 2016, a controversial killing in Nevada sent a man to prison. The victim? An inch-long Devils Hole pupfish.

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in High Country News on April 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

They passed around a bottle of Malibu rum as gunshots bellowed in the desert night. A trio of young men had set up camp near the unincorporated town of Crystal, 80 miles outside of Las Vegas. As recently as 2005, the tiny town hosted two brothels, but by April 2016, it was pretty much empty, ideal for carefree camping on a moon-like stretch of desert, the perfect place to pass around a bottle and a shotgun for some bunny blasting.

As often happens on a night like that, things went downhill. Drunk on rum and the roar of the gun, the three men fired up an off-road vehicle and drove away from camp. Riding in back was Trent, a chestnut-haired, bearded 27-year-old, who carried the shotgun and blasted away at road signs as they tore across the Amargosa Valley and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. They headed toward a remote unit of Death Valley National Park: Devils Hole, a deep pool inside a sunken limestone cavern. The area is surrounded by 10-foot-tall fencing, a fortress erected to protect an endangered species of pupfish found there.

Trent shot at the gate to the pedestrian walkway area and then shot the surveillance camera and yanked it from its mount. Then he and one of his companions, Steven, stumbled into the enclosure. Steven was so intoxicated that it took him multiple tries to clear the fence. Inside the enclosure, he paused to empty his bladder.

Filled with mischief, Trent lunged toward his partner and punched him in the crotch with a left hook. Then, as Steven stumbled over to a large boulder to vomit, Trent dropped the shotgun, stripped off his clothes, and slipped into the deep warm water of Devils Hole. He didn't know it yet, but that would prove to be his worst mistake of the night.

Sixty thousand years ago a narrow fissure opened up in the Amargosa Valley, releasing water pooled deep in the earth and creating Devils Hole, the opening to an underwater cavern. Scientists disagree over just how it happened — whether by way of underground tunnels, ancient floods, or receding waters — but several desert fish were separated from the larger population and trapped in Devils Hole. There, a tiny sub-population — the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis) — evolved in extreme isolation for tens of thousands of years, eventually, according to scientific consensus, becoming an entirely new species.

Today, visitors to Devils Hole get a rare window into one of the Mojave Desert's vast aquifers. Steep limestone walls surround a tiny opening into turquoise water. Divers have descended over 400 feet into the cave without reaching the bottom. The water is so deep that earthquakes on the other side of the world cause it to slosh, shocking the fish into spawning.

The environment in Devils Hole is so remote and extreme that scientists have long puzzled over how the pupfish can live there at all. Still, a modest population has managed to survive on a shallow, sloping rock shelf that gets just enough sunlight — only four hours per day at its peak — to allow algae to grow for the fish to eat.

The Devils Hole pupfish are truly unique. The males are a bright blue, the females a subdued teal, and they're only about an inch long. Trapped by geology in a consistent 93-degree womb, Devils Hole pupfish have nowhere to go. In fact, they have the smallest geographic range of any known vertebrate species.

The pupfish was among the first species to be protected under the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 — along with the American alligator, the California condor, and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard — and that protection was carried over to the Endangered Species Act of 1973. At the time, around 220 survived in Devils Hole, but since the 1990s, the species has been in significant decline, sinking to just 35 fish in 2013. Today, there are modest signs that the population is growing; the last population count was 136.

On Monday, May 2, 2016, Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist and manager of the Devils Hole research program, arrived at the National Park Service outpost in Pahrump, Nevada, a beige, low-key building in the middle of anti-Fed country. "We have some news you won't like,” one of his research associates told him, gesturing toward her computer screen. Wilson peered at the images just as one of the three trespassers tried — and failed — to clear the fencing before barging his way in on the other side of the enclosure.

Normally, the nocturnal visitors would have been caught by a motion sensor that triggered a loud alarm. But a barn owl roosting in the area had caused too many false alarms, and rather than spook the bird, officials had disabled the device. So once the men broke in, they felt no real urgency to leave. Little did they know that multiple cameras captured their every move.

The video played in Wilson's office. As one man swam, another remained at the edge of the water, while the drunkest one leaned against a rock. The swimmer climbed out of the water, dragged himself over the algae-covered shelf, and got dressed. Then the men fled on their off-road vehicle.

Wilson paused the video and backed it up. The man who fired the shotgun and plunged into the pool had left a few things behind — his wallet and cellphone. The next morning, in the fog of a hangover, he broke into Devils Hole to retrieve them, ignoring the empty beer cans and his underwear, which was still floating in the water.

Wilson reviewed one particular piece of footage, a view from an underwater camera, over and over: A foot plunged through the placid, algae-filled water onto a shallow shelf — the only breeding area in the world for the Devils Hole pupfish. The man had waded in at the most inopportune time, the peak breeding period for the pupfish. "I couldn't immediately tell if any fish were harmed,” Wilson told me. "But I decided to do a site visit to find out for sure.”

That morning, Wilson, his research team and a bevy of law enforcement officials assessed the damage. The area reeked of vomit, and Trent's underwear still floated in the water. In the pool, a single bright blue pupfish was also floating on the ­surface — dead.

The trespass swiftly activated an intricate enforcement network designed to protect the fish. A task force was assembled, led by the Park Service Investigative Services' Paul Crawford. Crawford would supervise two other men: Morgan Dillon and Josh Vann. Dillon, a detective for the Nye County Sheriff's Office, jumped at the chance to work on the case. "I originally went to college to be a wildlife biologist,” Dillon told me. "I've always been passionate about that and still like to read scientific articles on the pupfish. Me, personally, though — I wasn't smart enough to be a scientist, so I became a detective instead.”

Abundant surveillance footage gave the detectives clear images of the three suspects' faces. The four-wheeler also stood out: a blue Yamaha Rhino, with flamboyant stripes along its doors. "It was altered with a second seat, extended roof, skid plates up front. It wasn't something these guys bought and just drove off the lot,” Crawford said.

Back at the Nye County Sheriff's Office, Dillon showed his colleague, Sgt. Thomas Klenczar, an off-road aficionado, video stills of the customized vehicle. Minutes later, Klenczar and Dillon found the vehicle on Craigslist. Dillon used the phone number from the Craigslist ad and a house number in one of the photos of the Yamaha to come up with the owner's name. A photo of the man — Steven Schwinkendorf of Pahrump — matched the Devils Hole footage.

On May 6, Dillon, Klenczar, and Vann drove to Schwinkendorf's home. Dark-haired, 6 feet tall and topping 200 pounds, Schwinkendorf answered the door, his arms crossed. A small boy, his son, peeked around his legs. Dillon showed the photos from the surveillance video and asked him if the vehicle was his. Schwinkendorf admitted that it was and explained that he had already traded it in as part of a deal for a new four-wheeler.

"Is this you?” Dillon asked, pointing to one of the men on the video, according to investigation transcripts. Schwinkendorf said it was. The other two suspects had come to his house for a barbecue before they went camping, he said. "We had been drinking quite a bit,” Schwinkendorf admitted. Schwinkendorf identified his companions — Edgar Reyes, a Las Vegas local, and Trenton Sargent, the skinny-dipper — and gave Dillon their phone numbers.

Trent Sargent turned himself in just after Memorial Day and pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act, destruction of federal property, and — because he had been convicted of grand theft of money and property three years earlier in San Bernardino, California — possessing a firearm while a felon. Before his sentencing, he submitted a letter to U.S. District Judge Andrew Gordon, who would decide his fate. "I'm not one to make excuses for what I have done wrong and I'm not going to start now,” he wrote, in all capitalized, slanted script. "I made a stupid mistake. ... I'm not a bad person, your honor, and I take full responsibility for my actions and the crimes I committed.”

On Oct. 25, 2018, Sargent was sentenced to a total of 12 months and one day — nine months specifically for his violation of the Endangered Species Act — in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Once he is released from the Los Angeles Metropolitan Detention Center, Sargent must pay nearly $14,000 in restitution to the National Park Service, along with a $1,000 fine. He's also forbidden to enter federal public lands for the rest of his life.

Four months later, I journeyed to Indian Springs, Nevada, a community of fewer than 1,000, where Sargent has lived for most of his life. It's home to Creech Air Force Base and the Desert Warfare Training Center. I met Sargent's family at their spacious and warmly lit double-wide manufactured home. His mother, Norine, sat outside, watching her grandchildren jump on a trampoline in the yard. Trent's father, Josh, joined us a few minutes later, home from work at the Nevada National Nuclear Security Site.

I had assumed that the Sargent family would consider what happened to their son unfair. But I was wrong. In fact, they defended the Endangered Species Act with a conviction that surprised me, and they knew a lot about Devils Hole, and the pupfish that swam in it. Norine recalled the family taking trips there when Trent was a boy. "Trent would just as soon give first aid and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to that little pupfish than have this thing go on and on,” Josh said.

The Sargents' home was filled with pictures of family. In one, the beaming 12-year-old Trent holds up the first fish he ever caught, a minuscule rainbow trout. But now Trent can't visit public lands or use a firearm. "Trent grew up hunting and fishing,” Norine said. "And now he'll never get to go hunting with his dad ever again.”

Because there are so many endangered species, society is forced to make difficult choices about which ones to protect, and to what lengths we should go to save them. Climate change has quickened the pace of extinction, and already the number of critically endangered species exceeds our ability to save them all.

The Devils Hole pupfish, serene, obscure, and tiny, has survived a very long time in an unkind place, just one drunken night or one jug of poison away from oblivion. It is a wonder, to be sure. But how far do you go to save a species like this?

Since the incident, Devils Hole has become an even more formidable fortress. The Park Service capped its towering fences with additional barbed wire. The public can view the sunken cave only from a distance now, more than 20 feet above it. And inside the fenced viewing area are even more cameras, motion sensors, and "No Trespassing” signs.

"I hate it,” Wilson told me this winter. "I hear from the public all of the time — 'Why does this place look like a prison?' People get really upset that they can't get a closer look. But it's just what we have to do — to stop people from doing stupid things.”

Read the original at High Country News.


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