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3 men face felony charges in killing of endangered pupfish in Death Valley

Three men have been charged in a drunken rampage at a protected habitat in Death Valley National Park, where a tiny endangered fish was found dead.

Trenton Sargent, 26, of Indian Springs, Nev.; Steven Schwinkendorf, 29, of Pahrump, Nev.; and Edgar Reyes, 35, of North Las Vegas were identified through DNA collected at Devils Hole, a 40-acre detached unit in the park, according to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office in Nevada.

They were charged with conspiracy to commit a crime, killing of an endangered species, destruction of property, trespassing and destruction of habitat, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

“The intrusion is believed to have resulted in the death of at least one endangered Devils Hole pupfish, and fisheries biologists are trying to ascertain the extended damage that may have been done to food sources and egg sites, which could lead to more loss of a species whose numbers are now below the last count of 115 in existence,” the sheriff’s office said.

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Killing of an endangered species is a felony.

The men are accused of trespassing on April 30, spraying gunfire, tossing beer cans, vomiting and skinny-dipping in Devils Hole, which the scarce pupfish call home, officials said Thursday.

Authorities also used surveillance video showing a distinctive off-road vehicle to track the men. Schwinkendorf is the vehicle’s owner, sheriff’s officials said.

During an interview with detectives, Reyes confirmed he was one of the men in the video, authorities said. 

National Park Service officials released video Monday evening of the men illegally entering Devils Hole.

The following day, park officials announced they had identified the men.

Sheriff’s officials said the men were shooting rabbits and had been drinking before they jumped over a fence surrounding the protected area.

Once they entered Devils Hole, park officials said the men fired at least 10 shotgun rounds at signs, gate locks and a security system motion sensor. Scientific monitoring equipment also was damaged. Authorities believed the men tried to remove cables in an attempt to dismantle the security system. They also left behind beer cans and vomit.

Footage from an underwater Devils Hole pupfish camera also showed a pair of feet quickly entering the water and lifting ground sediment as the unidentified person stomped around. The water appears to be disturbed and shaking as the person moves.

At least one man jumped into the waters of Devils Hole, swam around and left his boxer shorts floating in the water, according to park officials.

A dead pupfish — one of 115 endangered desert fish — later was found floating the water.

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“The suspect(s) in the water stomped around the shelf area of the critical ecosystem before swimming around the deeper water, leaving behind a pair of dirty underwear when finished,“” the sheriff’s office said.

A necropsy was performed on the dead fish, and investigators determined it died about 24 to 48 hours earlier, meaning it could have died during the men’s visit, according to park spokeswoman Abby Wines. The slow-moving, docile fish may have died as a result of the men’s actions, but she said investigators may never know what caused the fish to die.

Pupfish, which grow to just 1 1/2 inches long, are the tenacious descendants of fish that inhabited an ancient lake that once covered Death Valley. The fish have no natural predators.

The pupfish population fluctuates between 100 and 200 in the winter and between 300 and 500 in the summer, according to the National Park Service. The latest population numbers were tallied in a survey last month, park officials said.

“April through May is the peak spawning season for this annual fish, and so the intruder likely crushed and destroyed eggs on the shelf,” park officials said in a statement.

The Center for Biological Diversity and park service offered a $15,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the men.

"We’re looking forward to seeing these three men brought to justice,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the center. “Not only did they act stupid, but they destroyed some of the last remaining habitat for one of the rarest fish in the United States.”

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UPDATES:

10:46 a.m.: This article has been updated with details about a reward for the arrest and conviction of the men.

This article was originally published at 7:42 a.m.

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