In 1969 the Nevada Legislature passed the first state based endangered species law in the nation

In 1969 the Nevada Legislature passed the first state based endangered species law in the nation

The cui ui (pronounced “KWEE-wee”), is a lake suckerfish species and living remnant from the last ice age that occurs only in Pyramid Lake in northern Nevada. The fish is highly revered by the Paiute people and is also carefully protected by the staff of the Lahontan National Fish Hatchery Complex for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Tina Nappe is a member of and has served on the boards of several local conservation organizations, as well as representing the State Board of Wildlife Commissioners as the conservationist from 1979-1994. Here she recounts the many factors which led to passage of AB660: Nevada’s endangered species law. This legislation prevailed thanks to Tina Nappe’s dedicated work on behalf of Nevada’s wildlife, combined with efforts by an array of individuals and groups.

Present at the signing of the Endangered Species Bill AB 660. (Seated) Governor Paul Laxalt; Tina Nappe, Endangered Species Committee; Assemblyman Roy Torvinen, Sponsor of the Bill. Standing left to right: Bob Alves, Audubon Society, Assemblyman John Homer, Chairman Fish and Game Committee; Assemblyman Paul May, who helped push the bill; Dr. Fred Ryser and Peter Herlan, members of the Endangered Species Committee.

NEVADA’S ENDANGERED SPECIES LAW[1]

The economic growth of the State of Nevada has been attended with some serious and unfortunate consequences. Nevada has experienced the extermination or extirpation of some of her native species of animals, including fish and vertebrate wildlife. Serious losses have occurred and are occurring in other species of native wild animals with important economic, educational, historical, political, recreational, scientific and aesthetic values”. AB 660. Section1.  Chapter 503 of NRS

In 1969 the Nevada Legislature passed the first state based endangered species law in the nation. How did an endangered species bill in a  rural state like  Nevada with less than a 500,000 population in 1970 get into the legislature let alone pass out of it? Several issues were converging. Nevada’s  population was growing. Clark County, (Las Vegas ) overtook Washoe County’s population in the 1960 census. The two counties represented over 60% of Nevada’s population. Wildlife issues, advocates, and related natural resource agencies were gaining more knowledge, traction and visibility.

The changing perspective and stresses on natural resources were issues which came to the forefront in the 1969 Legislative session. Several bills may have caused a distraction from the innocuous endangered species bill. For instance, the 55th Legislative Session would be the last for the then Nevada Fish and Game Commission. Under SB530, the 17 member Commission was being replaced by a nine member Commission with four of the nine representing Clark and Washoe County. A 17 person advisory board, a representative from each county, would advise the Commission.  The major change, however, was to separate policy set by the Commission from operations under the newly formed Nevada Department of Fish and Game.

The Commission had prepared a major “modernization” bill updating language, technical issues, and functions of the agency in SB533. And then there was a fee bill,  AB574, with increases to  underwrite the agency’s expanding operations.

Lahontan Cutthroat trout

On the water management side was another slew of bills. For Nevada to speak with one voice on Lake Tahoe development, SB 32 brought Carson, Douglas, Washoe Counties and the state under one roof to negotiate with California. Because the headwaters of the Carson, Walker, and Truckee rivers were in California, AB800 was passed to unite the counties and the State dependent on  the continued flow of those waters entering Nevada. The most critical legislation, however, was AB60, the California-Nevada Compact, which represented years of negotiation between the two states and the federal government over the use and rights to the Truckee River, which eventually terminates in Pyramid Lake, and which serves as the primary water source for the expanding communities of Reno and Sparks. If passed by Nevada and California, the legislation would be submitted to Congress for ratification. The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Department of Interior felt tribal concerns were not addressed. The Sierra Club and League of Women Voters supported the Tribe. A significant concern were two fish species, the Lahontan Cutthroat trout and the cui ui; both were dependent on Pyramid Lake. The Lahontan Cutthroat trout was also dependent on spawning upstream in the Truckee River. Nevada water law granted water rights based on commercial and municipal use, not to protect wildlife. The Pyramid Lake Tribe had a minimal water right; in many years most of the water was diverted to Lahontan Valley in conformance with the nation’s first Reclamation Project authorized in 1903.  As a result cui ui and the Lahontan Cutthroat trout were already listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Law of 1966. Should  the Nevada Legislature approve the bill and the Governor sign it, the Compact  faced environmental hurdles in Congress.

Devil’s Hole Pupfish by Agent Laufeyson

In southern Nevada another “fish” story was heating up. The Desert Fishes Council was founded  in 1969 partly to protect the Devil’s Hole Pupfish  in Ash Meadows, Nye County, Nevada.  The Council’s membership then as now was packed with ichthyologists determined to protect their beloved fish species. Cappaert, a land developer, began extensive agriculture development in Ash Meadows threatening a drawdown of ground water by drilling wells. In fact one well placed in a spring, extirpated the fish population.  Devil’s Hole pupfish depend on a shallow algae covered ledge.  If water drops below the ledge, the fish die. Fortunately, in 1952, the Devil’s Hole pupfish site was made an adjunct of Death Valley National Monument. Therefore the federal government on behalf of the Department of Interior could protest loss of water and go to court. The state sided with Cappaert but eventually lost. The case reaffirmed the Winter’s Doctrine, giving the federal government the right to sufficient water to protect the purposes for which the park or refuge was established. Many thanks to the brave federal employees, including Jim Yoakum and James Broom who were willing to risk their careers to protect the Devil’s Hole pupfish.

The Nevada State Legislature  addressed the state’s disregard for wildlife by passing AB278 which declared  “recreation as a beneficial use of water.”[2] This new provision allowed Nevada’s wildlife agency for the first time to protest water development infringing on wildlife values wherever water rights were filed, transferred, or otherwise altered.

Key to an endangered species law for Nevada were Dr. Richard G. Miller and his wife Maya who first came to Nevada in 1946.  Dr. Miller had completed his Ph D thesis in 1951 on “The Natural History of Lake Tahoe Fishes”. He briefly served as Director of the Nevada State Museum.  In 1961 he established a nonprofit foundation called Foresta Institute for Ocean and Mountain Studies (now defunct) in Washoe Valley on the grounds of  historic Washoe Pines Ranch, once the home of writer Will James, and later a divorce ranch.   Miller served on the Survival Service Commission of the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The IUCN was developing a Red Book of the world’s endangered species.  On the national level, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was involved in the same task.(Its first Redbook was published in 1973).  Miller, wanting an endangered species program focused on Nevada wildlife, hired me in 1966. I was a neighbor, a UNR graduate in English literature, and I occasionally brought him fish to identify in low water years from Ophir Creek or  the Carson River.

One aspect of my new job was to create a rare and endangered species redbook for Nevada. I established an Endangered Species Committee of specialists.There was Jim Yoakum, BLM’s first wildlife biologist, and Peter Herlan, a lepidopterist,  who worked for the Nevada State Museum. Then there was Dr. Fritz Ryser, professor at UNR, who, among other subjects, taught ornithology, was an early member of Lahontan Audubon Society, and eventually published Birds of the Great Basin in 1985. Dr. Jim Deacon, an ichthyologist at UNLV, focused on endemic fish.[3]

Using  the committee’s expertise, I identified potential candidates, primarily  Nevada’s unique fish species, developed status sheets, similar to those used nationally, created posters, postcards, newsletters and gave presentations.  It was Dr. Miller who suggested a Nevada Endangered Species Act.  

Lahontan Audubon Society members Bob Alves and Dr. John Davis contacted Assemblyman Roy Torvinen who was  a Republican Assemblyman from Washoe County and became the sole sponsor for AB60.  He received help from  Assemblyman Paul May, a Democrat, from Clark County.

Questioning the legislation was Nevada Fish and Game Commission Director Frank Groves, who felt he had a full plate already. The legislation represented new responsibilities for a slew of new  species, just as the Department was still learning about the game species. The Department of Agriculture opposed the protection of insects, concerned the law would interfere with pesticide management. Therefore, the insect provision was dropped. But rare and endangered plants assigned to the Division of Forestry were retained. So was the provision for establishing Nevada’s first falconry regulations.  Governor Paul Laxalt, a Republican, signed the legislation.

The Commission outlined the need for the new law in their publication  Nevada Outdoors, observing that:

warm spring fishes are endangered by introduction of tropical fish, lowering water tables or disruption of pools. Endemic butterflies are being wiped out by land clearance….  Hawk populations are declining because of out of state falconers are taking advantage of Nevada’s lack of regulations. Nevada already had about six extinct species and ten endangered species of fish. Under the legislation all raptors are protected.”

Then silence.  Frank Groves, then Director of the Nevada Department of Fish and Game (NDFG),  pointed out that no funding had been provided with the new responsibilities His federal funds from Pittman-Robertson (PR) (1937), Dingell Johnson (DJ) Fund (1950) and license income from sportsmen were limited to game species at that time.

How were we to fund this new program? While public interest in wildlife was broadening to more than  game species, funding for that interest was not forthcoming.Using general funds, taxes collected to underwrite local and state government services, for wildlife management was a new idea and not a welcome one nor viewed as necessary with sportsmen underwriting wildlife management costs. State and local governments had many basic responsibilities and never enough money for the health, safety, education  and well-being of its citizens.

Our legislative friends, Assemblymen Roy Torvinen and Paul May, came to the rescue again. A request to access General Funds for one position with meager travel expenses was included in the NDFG budget in 1973 and was approved.  The next step was to advertise the position There was not a rush to apply.  Current staff were concerned  the position would only last during the biennium.  But one person did apply, Bob Oakes. Since the program was new, Bob decided to focus on birds of prey, a focus which fit into his responsibilities for developing falconry regulations.  Short of travel funds, Bob sometimes hitched a ride with staff making big game surveys by air to look for nests. In 1977, Bob left Nevada for a job in Wyoming where before he retired he was supervisor of Wyoming Fish and Game Nongame program with a personal specialty in raptors. The small General Fund allocation has continued and was eventually augmented by Teaming with Wildlife grants and general funds for other wildlife purposes. The nongame/biodiversity program has continued to evolve embracing more of Nevada’s 890 species.

Peregrine falcon

[1] This article is based on recollection, some retained documents, and a little research. It is not intended as the last word but maybe as preliminary musings leaving deep research to others.

[2] For instance, Dr. Richard Miller filed for a water right in Devil’s Hole in 1948 “to raise fish” presumably for a commercial venture. With “recreation” one could file a water application on behalf of wildlife.  In 1988 under the Blue Lakes case, state engineer Pete Morros successfully went to court upholding the use of water in place for wildlife and recreation.

[3] The Commission’s first fisheries biologist and later Chief of Fisheries, Tom Trelease, among other duties focused on saving the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout. Dale Lockard, another fisheries biologist, attended Desert Fishes Council meetings. They were always willing to help.