Seemingly desolate Ash Meadows teems with life, by Richard Moreno
At first glance, Ash Meadows Wildlife Refuge doesn’t seem like much. It looks a lot like the rest of the area — acres of rolling hills dotted with sagebrush, juniper and mesquite shrub.
But examine the place a little more closely and you’ll see there is much more to it.
In fact, Ash Meadows is one of the best places in the state to discover what scientists mean when they talk about the state’s rich biological diversity.
The refuge, in fact, has the greatest concentration of endemic species in the nation. Some 26 species of plants, fish and animal life can only be found at Ash Meadows.
The refuge is located in southwestern Nevada about 25 miles south of Lathrop Wells, off Nevada State Route 373. To reach it, head south on Highway 95 through Tonopah. Lathrop Wells is located another two hours south of Tonopah on 95.
Encompassing 24,000 acres, the refuge was originally part of a large Amargosa Valley alfalfa ranch, which was later used for cattle ranching.
In 1984, the Nature Conservancy purchased 12,000 acres for a refuge — largely to prevent development. A few years later, the area became a National Wildlife Refuge. In 1994, a small portion of the refuge, an area known as Devil’s Hole, was incorporated into Death Valley National Park.
The federal government acquired Ash Meadows largely because of the presence of a tiny creature known as the Devil’s Hole Pupfish. This inch-long, almost transparent fish is only found in Devil’s Hole, which is a deep, narrow opening in the ground filled with natural spring water.
The Devil’s Hole Pupfish is also an endangered species. About 90 percent of the species can be found within 20 feet of the water’s surface, where they can spawn on a rock ledge and have access to sunlight.
Water usage in the Amargosa Valley is regulated to ensure that the water level in Devil’s Hole doesn’t drop. Scientists believe the springs in the Amargosa Valley have a common source so that any change in the area’s water table, such as excessive pumping, can affect the pupfish habitat.
In addition to the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, Ash Meadows has a half-dozen or so geothermal spring-fed pools and each boasts its own, unique species of pupfish. For example, the Ash Meadows Amargosa Pupfish thrives in Crystal Springs while the Warm Springs Pupfish can only be found in a pond known — surprise — as Warm Springs.
Each pool is believed to have been part of a larger body of water that eventually receded into smaller, separate ponds in which each subgroup of pupfish evolved differently.
Walking through the refuge is a remarkably, peaceful experience. A few hundred yards from the road it’s not uncommon to spot wild horses and burros foraging in the area.
Crystal Springs is perfectly named with its sparkling, inviting clear waters. Standing on the grassy edge of the warm spring-fed pond (temperatures run about 85 degrees), which is about the size of a small swimming pool, you can see small bubbles rising from somewhere below and then gurgle to the surface.
Peering into the water you can see the tiny pupfish swimming around a rock ledge, looking like miniature, transparent sardines.
Visitors to the refuge can learn more about the area’s fragile ecology at the new Ash Meadows Visitors Center, which offers interactive displays as well as an informative film about the refuge.
For information about the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, go to http://www.fws.gov/refuge/ash_meadows/.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.