The tiny fish has become an icon for those looking to protect endangered species and their habitats, but it’s a target of deep resentment in Nevada, and particularly in Nye County, where, according to critics, the interests of an obscure fish are pitted against the livelihood of local agricultural families. The issue has tested water rights in this arid part of the American West and raised questions about how far officials should go to save a handful of imperiled fish. The drunken invasion of its habitat in 2016 was not unprecedented: Dozens of trespasses have been documented throughout the decades. But such crimes are difficult to investigate and rarely prosecuted.
This time, however, would be different.
On Monday, May 2, 2016, Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist and the manager of the Devils Hole research program, arrived at the Pahrump, Nevada, National Park Service outpost, a beige, low-key building in the middle of anti-fed country.
“We have some news you won’t like,” one of his research associates told him, gesturing toward a surveillance video playing on her computer screen. Wilson peered at the images just as one of the three trespassers tried—and failed—to clear the fencing before barging his way in on the other side of the enclosure.
“As I watched the surveillance footage, I could tell they had definitely been drinking,” Wilson told me when I visited in February. “But it was really just the one guy that had actually gotten in the pool that concerned me the most.”
Wilson, who is 51 with dark-gray hair and bright blue eyes, wears his green uniform comfortably, a slight potbelly protruding above his belt. He jokes often, but the deep wrinkles in his face, tanned from years in the unforgiving Nevada sun, give him a stern appearance.
Normally, the nocturnal visitors would have been caught by a motion sensor that triggered a loud alarm. But a barn owl roosting in the area had caused too many false alarms, and rather than spook the bird, officials had disabled the device. So once the men broke in, they felt no real urgency to leave. Little did they know that multiple cameras captured their every move.
A small earth tremor that occurred over the weekend had prompted Wilson’s staff to review the footage. “Obviously, we saw much more than we had been expecting,” Wilson said, raising an eyebrow.
The video continued to play in Wilson’s office. As one man swam, another remained at the edge of the water, while the drunkest one leaned against a rock. The swimmer climbed out of the water, dragged himself over the algae-covered shelf, and got dressed. Then the party fled on their off-road vehicle.
Wilson paused the video and backed it up. The man who fired the shotgun and plunged into the pool had left a few things behind—his wallet and cellphone. The next morning, in the fog of a hangover, he broke in to Devils Hole to retrieve them, ignoring the empty beer cans and his underwear, which was still floating in the water.