Owens Pupfish Release Ceremony-Bishop Paiute Tribe

Bishop Paiute Tribe and partners celebrate establishment of new endangered Owens pupfish sanctuary on Bishop Paiute Indian Reservation
On April 21, in an event coordinated with the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Annual Earth Day Event, the Bishop Paiute Tribal Council along with Tribal Staff, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) released endangered Owens pupfish into the newly established Owens Pupfish Refuge within the Tribe’s Conservation Open Space Area.

Due to a variety of reasons, the fish has become extremely rare and is now listed under both the federal Endangered Species Act and California Endangered Species Act.
“Establishing the Owens pupfish on tribal lands is a real reason to celebrate. The fish have played such an important part of our cultural history. We are so happy that we have finally arrived at this point where we have worked through the logistical and legal hurdles involved and found the means to contribute to the protection and recovery of the fish both on and potentially off-reservation,” said Meryl Picard, Tribal Chairwoman.
Once widespread up and down the Owens Valley in the network of ponds and sloughs that make up the Owens River watershed, the Owens pupfish was once a staple food item for the local Paiute, who caught fish by the hundreds and dried them for storage and later eating. Implementation of this project is an important milestone in a 15-year journey for the Bishop Paiute Tribe, taking a proactive approach to the conservation of a local protected species.

Another milestone on this journey was the passing of California Assembly Bill 2001, Owens Pupfish Protection Act, a bill sponsored by California State Assembly member Devon Mathis of the 33rd District in 2016. Under the California Fish and Wildlife Code 5515, Owens pupfish are a fully protected species, meaning that without the passage of this bill, the Tribe would not have been able to complete the project because a fully protected species cannot be “taken or possessed” except under certain circumstances. The bill authorizes projects like this to move forward if they are authorized under a state Safe Harbor Agreement.

“The resulting language of AB2001 in 2016 allows a landowner to harbor a California state endangered, fully protected species like Owens pupfish,” said Brian Adkins, the Tribe’s Environmental Director. “This project is the first time a fully protected fish species has been covered under a Safe Harbor Agreement.” In 2024, the Tribe signed a federal Safe Harbor Agreement with the Fish and Wildlife Service, supported by California Department of Fish and Wildlife, to establish the new population of Owens pupfish.

“Safe Harbor Agreements are an important tool for endangered species recovery, and we are so honored to be a partner to this historic moment for the Tribe and for Owens pupfish,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest regional director Paul Souza “The Tribe’s efforts to see this project through speak to their inherent dedication to the stewardship of the land, and the fish, wildlife and plants within.”
The Safe Harbor Agreement allowed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to issue a consistency determination with the permit, providing the Tribe with the appropriate protections to move forward with the project. The Tribe and CDFW were also able to extend these protections to neighboring landowners, including LADWP, whose land is hydrologically connected to the Tribe’s.

Russell Black, CDFW program manager gives more details, “The Department has been working with the Tribe for two decades on this project. To see it finally be implemented as a successful conservation action is really exciting. We’re grateful for the Tribe and all their efforts on this project. A lot of entities worked together over many years to see this fish be reintroduced to Tribal land and we’re happy to have a part in this story.”
In preparation for the release ceremony, partners gathered pupfish from five populations across the Owens Valley, which will ensure genetic diversity and assist with the success of the new Bishop Paiute Tribe population.

“We would like to thank all the tribes, individuals, agencies, organizations, and elected officials that participated and supported us in this effort”, said the Chairwoman. “We now invite Valley land managers and neighboring landowners to join us in this effort to identify new homes for the pupfish using this newly available Safe Harbor Act as a tool. Working together we can increase their number in the Valley and bring the fish back”.

The Bishop Paiute Tribe’s Environmental Management Office Department will continue to monitor the success of the population and are hopeful this is the first of other such efforts for the species. For more information, please contact Brian Adkins, Environmental Director, Bishop Paiute Tribe Environmental Management Office 760-873-3584.
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