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Vandals identified in Death Valley rampage at pupfish refuge

Surveillance video shows three man vandalizing a protected habitat in Death Valley National Park.

Investigators have identified three men seen in surveillance video vandalizing a protected habitat in Death Valley National Park in a drunken rampage that included gunfire, skinny-dipping, vomiting and the death of a tiny endangered fish.

The men have not been arrested, but were identified after investigators received numerous tips from citizens who recognized their off-road vehicle, said Abby Wines, a spokeswoman for Death Valley National Park. The distinctive vehicle was described as a blue Yamaha Rhino that was “extensively customized, with an added seat and safety cage,” officials said.

National Park Service officials released video Monday evening showing the men illegally entering Devils Hole and possibly causing the death of a fish known as the Devils Hole pupfish. A $15,000 reward is being offered for the men’s arrests and conviction.

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Video shows the men climbing down a wall of rocks.

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

Footage from an underwater Devils Hole pupfish camera shows 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.

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

A necrospy 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, Wines said. It is possible the fish died as a result of the men’s actions, but she said investigators may never know what caused the fish to die.

Wines said investigators are concerned the man may have crushed several eggs laid in the shallow water and caused significant disruption to its habitat.

“Video footage recorded this man walking on the shallow shelf, potentially stressing and crushing pupfish, which are slow-moving, docile, and as they have no natural predators, curious by nature,” park officials said in a statement. “April through May is the peak spawning season for this annual fish, and so the intruder likely crushed and destroyed eggs on the shelf.”

Pupfish, which grow to just 1½ inches long, are the tenacious descendants of fish that inhabited an ancient lake that once covered Death Valley.

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.

After the excursion, the men climbed over the fence and drove away in what appeared to be a blue Yamaha Rhino, an off-road vehicle. The vehicle was “extensively customized, with an added seat and safety cage,” officials said.

Initially, the National Park Service offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the vandals’ arrest. The Center for Biological Diversity later added an additional $10,000 to the bounty, hoping it might encourage people with information regarding the incident to come forward.

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“Devil’s Hole pupfish have been teetering on the brink of extinction for years,” said Ileene Anderson, a senior scientist with the center. “The last thing they need are these idiots running amok in the last place on Earth where they still survive.” 

Anyone with details is urged to call the park service’s Investigative Service Branch at (888) 653-0009.

For breaking news in California, follow VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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