A Trip To Ash Meadows (Nevada) National Wildlife Refuge

by Allan Semeit (October 22, 2003)

The annual Desert Springs Action Committee work project to Ash Springs, Nevada, was scheduled for 10/10 – 10/11/2003. DSAC has been visiting Ash Meadows for about eight years, attempting to remove exotic fishes and improve the habitats for several native fishes including several subspecies of Cyprinodon nevadensis (mionectes and pectoralis). Check the DSAC website for information about this group and their activities.

On Friday, 10/10, at 6:20 AM, fellow Arizona Rivulin Keeper member Dan Drinan and I loaded our gear, and my dog Rambo, into the back of my Toyota Tacoma pick-up. The ride started inauspiciously as it was drizzling, and then within a mile from home the rain began to pour in buckets. Hey, this is Arizona and we are experiencing a drought. Rain! We stopped and covered our gear with a tarp, but poor Rambo was stuck riding in the truck bed. Who would have expected it to rain in Phoenix? The rain continued and was very heavy at times until we reached Kingman, almost 3 hours later. Fortunately, the weather cleared and Rambo "air-dried" quickly. We drove across Hoover Dam and through Las Vegas. On the outskirts of Las Vegas, near the intersection of I-15 and SR 160, we stopped for gas and had lunch, then continued on SR160 to Pahrump.

Along the way, we discovered that we were missing part of the directions. Apparently, not all of the pages printed. Fortunately, I had copied the map of Ash Meadows from the official government website and it mentioned Bell Vista Road. Of course, the road was not on any of my highway maps, so we stopped at a Best Western in Pahrump and asked if anyone knew where Bell Vista Road was? It turned out to be about three miles north of town on SR160 - and we were going to turn west on SR372! We were glad we asked. From Pahrump, it was an easy 22 miles to the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and Bell Vista was a nice, paved two-lane road.

We reached Ash Meadows a little after 1 PM (a 7-hour ride) and located the campsite where the rest of the DSAC was staying. There was a "mobile home" permanently situated on the site, about a half dozen tents, and a motor home, but no people. Dan and I unloaded the truck and then went looking for the others. A few miles down the road, a convoy of four vehicles passed us going the other way. I recognized the "Guru of the Left Coast" (aka Wright Huntley) in one of the vehicles, so we turned around and took off in pursuit. It was easy to see where they were going as from each vehicle there trailed a huge cloud of alkali dust. We followed them to Point of Rocks Spring. This spring was at the base of a hillside and quite attractive. In the spring and outflow stream, we were able to easily observe pupfish. The males glittered with their spawning colors! Led by Steve Hulse, Doug Haberstaat, Jeff Peralta, and Bruce Bochte, the group set out minnow traps both there and at near-by King's Spring. The traps were to sample the aquatic population and remove any non-native denizens. We then left the traps and returned to the main campsite.

After a brief respite, and the arrival of more DSAC members who had been on another work project, we all loaded up and drove to Big Spring. Like most of the springs, we visited, Big Spring was out in the middle of a fairly flat area. You could easily follow the course of the outlet by noting the line of reeds or rushes and brush that lined the water. At Big Spring we met up with representatives of Nevada Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. We were able to observe about 20 largemouth bass basking in the depths of the pool. They had not been there on previous visits and their presence was a huge disappointment. Bass eat pupfish and given enough time would decimate the pupfish population. The thought was that they had managed to migrate upstream despite barriers. At Big Spring we again set baited minnow traps to catch Gambusia, Mollies, and whatever. We then left and headed back to the campsite. It was about 5 PM and the temperature was unseasonally warm – in the 90s.

While I knew some of the DSAC participants from my days as a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Killifish Association, there were still plenty of people that I did not know. To make things more challenging, people kept arriving and leaving throughout our stay. I did have the privilege of meeting AKA Charter Member Harry Specht from Florida. Harry flew to Los Angeles to visit his brother and somehow convinced him to drive his motorhome to Ash Meadows. I think both of them enjoyed the trip. If I had to guess, during the weekend, there were probably more than twenty, maybe thirty, people and at least six dogs. We also had a large contingent from Arizona. Peter Unmack led a group of five others from the Phoenix area. None of these were ARK members. One of these, I think his name was Glenn, works for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Glenn asked if we thought ARK members might be interested in habitat restoration near Phoenix. There were several possible sites he knew of. It sounded interesting, and it was suggested that Peter Unmack serve as the ARK contact for this.

One of the highlights of the trip was Friday dinner. Wright's friend Ellen Siegal, from Bishop, CA, prepared a delicious pasta with Italian sausage, salad, veggies, and rum cake for dessert. It was well worth the $5 cost to partake. Preceding, during, and following dinner, we socialized. Finally, around 10 PM, we retired.

I put up a cot and slept behind the mobile home. It was fairly windy all night long and a bit nippy. In order to get out of the breeze, I just pulled the sleeping bag over my head. Most of the night was comfortable but it did get a bit cool before sunrise. Harry Specht said the motor home had an outside thermometer that read 42 degrees when he got up.

Sunrise was around 7 AM and most of us arose about then. Each of us was responsible for our own breakfast. Shortly after 8 AM, we assembled and were given our tasks. I was asked to drive Shannon, a biology student, to Longstreet Spring where she was hoping to collect bullfrog tadpoles. We loaded her stuff along with her dog Jo-Jo, and Rambo, into the back of my truck. Since the rest of the group was going to either Rogers or Fairbanks Springs, and they were just down the road from Longstreet Spring, we decided to look at them first. While at each of the springs, we helped the others set out the minnow traps. It ended up that by the time we returned to Longstreet Spring, the others were going there as well. That really helped Shannon as several people had long-handled nets and were able to fish out the tadpoles. The traps did not work very well for tadpoles. By 11 AM, Shannon had all she needed. We returned to the campsite where she packed up and headed home. Shortly afterwards, the rest returned for lunch.

After lunch, a number of people departed. These included Peter Unmack and his crew as well as Wright Huntley and Ellen Siegal. The rest of us returned to the three springs to retrieve the traps and check the results.

We went to the closest spring – Longstreet – first, and worked our way out. At Longstreet Spring, I decided to collect some Mollies to bring home to see if they could remove some of the algae I had growing in my pond’s “bog filter”. I was able to get about a dozen, some of which were black-spotted. These were fairly aggressive and I was advised not to bag more than two together. While bagging them, I had to content with a nasty biting fly that kept trying to sample me! Fortunately, that was about the only problem we had with insects the entire weekend.

At each spring, we would take out the minnow traps and dump their contents into several large buckets. Then some of the people would sort out the collection. I participated in the sorting at Fairbanks Spring. Pupfish went into one bucket and were returned to their spring. The Mollies, Gambusia, crawfish, tadpoles, and other exotics were counted as they went into another bucket. I'm not sure where they were disposed of, but they were not returned to the springs. We also cleaned off and stacked the traps in the back of my truck as we went from spring to spring. I heard we pulled well over a thousand exotics out of the springs.

We received another surprise at Fairbanks Spring - Convict Cichlids. We captured quite a few. Most had their tail fins chewed up. Again, like the black bass at Big Spring, the Convicts were not found there previously. Fairbanks Spring is on the edge of the refuge, and a road outside the refuge runs along beside it. We can speculate that someone dumped the Convicts into the spring. But why? There is no way to know. It is a long way to civilization. Fairbanks did have a nice population of pupfish, despite the Convicts.

When all of the traps were pulled, and the fish sorted and counted, we headed to the Refuge Headquarters. The traps belonged to them and we returned them. It was now about 4 PM.

I was a bit surprised to find that no one was planning to spend Saturday night at the campsite. The mobile home would be locked up so Dan and I would not have access to a bathroom or cooking facilities, so we decided our best course was to drive back to Phoenix. We packed up and hit the road about 4:30. About 10 miles down Bell Vista road, we came to a halt. The police had blocked the traffic and there was a med-evac helicopter sitting in the middle of the road. After 15 minutes, the chopper lifted and the road was reopened. As we went by the accident site, there was a motorcycle off the side of the road. It appeared that the cyclist lost control. There did not seem to be any other vehicles involved.

That was about the only excitement we had on the return trip. We arrived at my place a little after 11 PM. Again, the trip home took about 7 hours.

The trip to Ash Meadows was one that I had wanted to take for a long time. For the past 30 years I have heard Al Castro and others describe this area. Finally, I was able to see it myself and fulfill one of my goals. On top of that, I was able to help preserve some unique killifish.

© 2003 Allan Semeit