History of the COSA

In 1988, the Bishop Paiute Tribe set aside 24.8 acres of wetland habitat as a Conservation Open Space Area in mitigation for filling adjacent lands for commercial development. The land reserved for development now includes the Bishop Paiute Tribe Commercial Park, Toiyabe Indian Health Clinic, the Bishop DMV, and US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Offices.

This wetland mitigation was a requirement enforced by the Army Corps of Engineers as a part of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the US, including wetlands, and determines mitigation strategies to offset the impacts of development. Specifically, the Army Corps of Engineers granted the tribe Nationwide Permit 26 (Wetlands Protection or Swamp Reclamation). This Nationwide Permit authorizes certain kinds of wetland fill, certain amounts of fill, or fills in certain types of waters, as long as the fill meets specified conditions and the filler abides by specified management practices. In addition, no practical alternatives may exist that are less damaging to aquatic environments, and the nation's water must not be significantly degraded by the project.

The mitigation ratio was determined to be 1:3, meaning that for every unit of area designated for development, three would be set aside as a Conservation Open Space Area, to remain undeveloped in perpetuity. While the COSA area was born from required mitigation, the Bishop Paiute Tribe's vision for the area has since expanded greatly. Today, the COSA not only serves as important habitat for natives plants and animals, it also provides recreational opportunities, wildlife trails, and an ideal location for environmental education programs. Furthermore, the COSA is currently being utilized to increase populations of threatened and endangered plants and animals, such as the Owens Valley Checkerbloom, the Inyo County Mariposa Lily and, perhaps most notably, the Owens Pupfish.

The Desert Fish Refuge Project

The Owens Pupfish (named for its playful nature) is a 2.0 inch long, silver-gray fish that turns a bright, florescent blue during spawning season. Historically, the pupfish was a staple food item for Native people in the Owens Valley, who caught the fish by the hundreds and dried and stored them. Aboriginal lands of the Paiutes encompass well over two million acres, including the entire ancestral area of the Owens Pupfish.

Today, the Owens Pupfish is a federally listed endangered species, and it is confined to five small populations in the Owens Valley. There are currently an estimated 10,000 Owens Pupfish in existence, although, at their closest to extinction, the population dwindled to an estimated 800 fish. In 1968, these fish were rescued from a drying pool in Fish Slough by California Department of Fish and Game biologist Phil Pister, who says of the experience "I distinctly remember being scared to death. I had walked perhaps fifty yards when I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species. If I had tripped over a piece of barbed wire or stepped into a rodent burrow, the Owens pupfish would now be extinct.”

The explanation for the decline of the Owens Pupfish is complex, but some of the main contributors are nonnative species such as Crayfish, mosquito fish, cattails, bullfrogs, and trout and largemouth bass, which were introduced to the Valley for sport fishing. The diversion of much of the Owen's Valley's water supply to southern California also played a huge role in the fish's current endangered status.

In 2002, the Bishop Paiute Tribe, in conjunction with the State of California Department of Fish and Game, identified the potential of the COSA to develop a native fish refuge. They planned to reuse water from a subsurface drainage system that was constructed in the 1940s and had since fallen out of repair.

In 2010, the Tribe implemented the project. They repaired and installed water lines to the COSA area, designed and constructed ponds for native fish, and constructed 4,000 feet of walking trails connecting the site with the Tribal Cultural Center and the off-reservation public schools. Eventually, Owens pupfish will be introduced to the ponds. Currently, Pond 3, which is adjacent to Bishop Elementary School, contains Owens Valley Tui Chub, Owens Speckled Dace, and Sucker Fish, which are all native fish species.

The stall in introducing pupfish to the COSA ponds is due to concerns regarding possible escapement of the fish from tribal lands into local waterways. This is seen as an issue due to the fish's "fully protected" status. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife "Fully Protected" classification, a fully protected species "may not be taken or possessed at any time and no licenses or permits may be issued for their take except for collecting these species for necessary scientific research and relocation of the bird species for the protection of livestock." "Take", in this classification, means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct. An incidental take is a take that results from activates that are otherwise lawful.” In other words, individuals who harm an Owens Pupfish, whether intentionally or not, could be arrested for their actions. This creates incentive for land (and water) owners to keep the species out of their property, which has resulted in significant reduction of viable pupfish habitat.

A Safe Harbor Agreement presents a reasonable solution to this issue by allowing individual landowners to do work that may disrupt pupfish but will likely improve or increase their viable habitat overall. Safe Harbor Agreements encourage landowners to manage their lands voluntarily in conjunction with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, so long as the protected species is as numerous as it was prior to management activites.

The Bishop Paiute Tribe Environmental Management Office (EMO), the Tribal Environmental Protection Agency (TEPA) and other agencies spearheaded an effort to ammend state legislation to allow interested landowners, within state juristiction, to give safe harbor to species. On September 23, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill No. 2001 Owens Pupfish Recovery Act. The tribe is proud to be a part of the recovery of the Owens pupfish, and plans to introduce pupfish into COSA Pond 1 once an outflow screen has been properly tested to prevent their escapement.