To understand the Devils Hole pupfish, you must understand Devils Hole.

Devils Hole is a detached part of Death Valley National Park and just one of the thirty seeps and springs that comprise the Ash Meadows oasis.[1] Ash Meadows is the discharge point for hundreds of miles of “fossil” water “which entered the groundwater system thousands of years ago.”[2]

Devils Hole is remarkable for a number of reasons. At over 500 meters deep, Devils Hole serves as an indicator of seismic activity around the world; “earthquakes as far away as Japan, Indonesia, and Chile have caused the water [in Devils Hole] to ‘slosh’ . . . as high as two meters up the walls.”[3] While divers have descended over 400 feet into the spring, none have ever reached the bottom.[4]

Devils Hole is home to “the only naturally occurring population” of Cyprinodon diabolis, or the incredibly unique Devils Hole pupfish.[5] The bright, silvery-blue pupfish are quite cute; they earned their name by the way they playfully frolic around like puppies, and they grow no more than 1 inch in length.[6] Scientists disagree over just how the pupfish got to the desert oasis in the first place, but whether by underground aquifers or ancient floods, the pupfish have lived, bred, and “evolved in extreme isolation for tens of thousands of years.”[7]

With the “smallest geographic range of any known vertebrate species,” and only one “shallow, sloping rock shelf that gets just enough sunlight” to grow their only food source—algae—the Devils Hole pupfish are few in number.[8] Their population fluctuates between 100 and 500, depending on the season.[9] They are classified by the Fish and Wildlife Service as a “Category 2 endangered” listing, meaning that “as a result of their limited range or population size, [the pupfish] are vulnerable to extinction from elevated threats.[10] This category applies to species found in an extremely limited range that, in addition, are facing increasing threats.”[11]

As a “Category 2 endangered” species, the Devils Hole pupfish are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973.[12] Through this act, Congress declared its policy to be “that all Federal departments and agencies shall seek to conserve endangered species and threatened species and shall utilize their authorities in furtherance of the purposes of this chapter.”[13]

The Endangered Species Act stipulates a criminal penalty and declares that “[a]ny person who knowingly violates any provision of this chapter . . . shall, upon conviction, be fined not more than $50,000 or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.”[14]

The Endangered Species Act provides an incredible amount of legal protection. Someone could potentially go to prison for a whole year and be fined a whopping $50,000 for harming just one single pupfish.

And that is precisely what happened. The pupfish’s legal protection bared its teeth when, on April 30, 2016, three men drunkenly broke through the fence enclosing Devils Hole and urinated, vomited, and shot guns around the ancient spring.[15] One man stripped naked and waded into Devils Hole, stomping the algae shelf and killing one of the little pups, and leaving his underwear behind to float around in the water.[16] The entire mischievous escapade was captured on surveillance footage, and after a month-long investigation, the Park Service’s investigative task force identified the skinny-dipper as 26-year-old Trenton Sargent.[17]

Shortly thereafter, Sargent turned himself in.[18] He pleaded guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act (among other crimes) and was sentenced to “12 months and one day—nine months specifically for his violation of the Endangered Species Act.”[19] Sargent was fined only $1,000 for his crime, but was ordered to pay $14,000 in restitution to the National Park Service.[20] He is “also forbidden to enter federal public lands for the rest of his life.”[21]

The pupfish might be little, both in size and in number, but the legal protections surrounding the pupfish are big. The physical protections around Devils Hole itself have been bolstered as well since the 2016 incident.[22] The spring is now fully equipped with towering fences, barbed wire, cameras, motion sensors, and “No Trespassing” signs.[23] Although it renders the aesthetic prison-like, “Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist and the manager of the Devils Hole research program,” exasperatedly said, “It’s just what we have to do—to stop people from doing stupid things.”[24]


* Helen Marsh, J.D., expected May 2021, The George Washington University Law School. I would like to thank The Week magazine for publishing a piece on the Devils Hole pupfish and the Devils Hole pupfish for being so darn cute.

[1] See Devils Hole, Nat’l Park Serv., (last updated Aug. 11, 2019).

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] See Katherine Rivard, The Extraordinary Lives of Death Valley’s Endangered Devils Hole Pupfish, Nat’l Park Found. Blog (May 29, 2017),

[5] See Devils Hole, supra note 1.

[6] See Rivard, supra note 4.

[7] See Paige Blankenbuehler, How a Tiny Endangered Species Put a Man in Prison, High Country News (April 15, 2019),

[8] See id.

[9] See Devils Hole, supra note 1.

[10] See id.

[11] Ctr. for Biological Diversity v. Salazar (In re Polar Bear Endangered Species Act Listing), 794 F. Supp. 2d 65, 83 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing Cappaert v. United States, 426 U.S. 128 (1976)).

[12] See Blankenbuehler, supra note 7.

[13] 16 U.S.C.A. § 1531(c)(1) (West 2019).

[14] 16 U.S.C.A. § 1540(b)(1) (West 2019).

[15] See Blankenbuehler, supra note 7.

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] See id.

[19] See id.

[20] See id.

[21] See id.

[22] See id.

[23] See id.

[24] See id.