The Devils Hole pupfish is a minimalist sort of fish. It’s less than one inch long. It’s a fairly uninteresting shade of silvery blue. And it lives a hermit-like existence: Nearly extinct, its entire population lives in one 500-foot-deep, 92-degree water-filled cavern in Death Valley National Park.
This species of pupfish has lived in the remote desert for as many as 20,000 years, and not very prolifically so. Usually there are no more than 500 pupfish in Devils Hole; in a population survey last month, biologists counted just 115. To protect this fragile fish community, the National Parks Service has fenced off its spring-fed habitat and installed a security system.
And so it was with horror last week that National Park Service employees discovered a scene at Devils Hole that looked like the aftermath of a frat party at a shooting range. Signs, two gate locks and a motion sensor had been shot, the agency said in a statement. Beer cans were strewn about the site, as was vomit. A pair of boxers was left in the pool, indicating someone had taken a dip with the rare fish.
Worst of all, one of the 115 pupfish was dead.
But although the uninvited visitors had removed cables from two cameras, others continued to function. So officials had video of the incident, which occurred on the evening of April 30.
In it, three men were seen climbing over the fence and fleeing the scene in a blue Yamaha Rhino that was “extensively customized with an added seat and safety cage,” the Park Service said. A video released by the service includes footage from the Devils Hole “pupfish cam,” and it shows the feet of one man walking on the shallow shelf, where the fish spawn and feed on algae.
The Park Service on Friday offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the men, and the Center for Biological Diversity added $10,000 to that amount on Monday.
“Devils Hole pupfish have been teetering on the brink of extinction for years. The last thing they need are these idiots running amok in the last place on Earth where they still survive,” Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the center, said in a statement. “We hope this additional reward prompts anyone with knowledge of the crime to come forward so that this offense can be fully prosecuted.”
Apparently tips came in. On Tuesday, the Park Service said its “multi-agency investigation” had led to the identity of the men. Abby Wines, a spokewoman at Death Valley National Park, said they were not yet in custody.
Meanwhile, the Park Service said, a necropsy is being carried out on the deceased pupfish “to determine whether the vandals’ actions may have caused the death of this member of an endangered species.”