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Digging the pupfish out of its hole: risk analyses to guide harvest of Devils Hole pupfish for captive breeding.

  • Author(s): Beissinger, Steven
  • et al.

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The Devils Hole pupfish is restricted to one wild population in a single aquifer-fed thermal pool in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex. Since 1995 the pupfish has been in a nearly steady decline, where it was perched on the brink of extinction at 35-68 fish in 2013. A major strategy for conserving the pupfish has been the establishment of additional captive or refuge populations, but all ended in failure. In 2013 a new captive propagation facility designed specifically to breed pupfish was opened. I examine how a captive population can be initiated by removing fish from the wild without unduly accelerating extinction risk for the pupfish in Devils Hole. I construct a count-based PVA model, parameterized from estimates of the intrinsic rate of increase and its variance using counts in spring and fall from 1995-2013, to produce the first risk assessment for the pupfish. Median time to extinction was 26 and 27 years from spring and fall counts, respectively, and the probability of extinction in 20 years was 26-33%. Removing individuals in the fall had less risk to the wild population than harvest in spring. For both spring and fall harvest, risk increased rapidly when levels exceeded six adult pupfish per year for three years. Extinction risk was unaffected by the apportionment of total harvest among years. A demographic model was used to examine how removal of different stage classes affects the dynamics of the wild population based on reproductive value (RV) and elasticity. Removing eggs had the least impact on the pupfish in Devils Hole; RV of an adult was roughly 25 times that of an egg. To evaluate when it might be prudent to remove all pupfish from Devils Hole for captive breeding, I used the count-based model to examine how extinction risk related to pupfish population size. Risk accelerated when initial populations were less than 30 individuals. Results are discussed in relation to the challenges facing pupfish recovery compared to management of other highly endangered species.

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