There is a tiny, unprepossessing freshwater fish well known around these parts, a species federally listed as “Vulnerable” that truly lives up to the designation: desert dace (Eremichthys acros), found in a handful of springs north of Gerlach and nowhere else on earth. A poster child for habitat fragmentation, this chub minnow with its sandpapery lips and perpetually dour expression has a curious propensity for living in hot water, both literally and figuratively.
A tenuous existence, this life of the piscine, desert-dwelling thermophile. E. acros can tolerate temperatures in excess of a hundred degrees Fahrenheit—a threshold higher than that of any other minnow in western North America. They feed on algae and invertebrates, many of which are also endemic (or at least highly localized in their populations), the whole lot obligate hot-springers living the life of watery seclusion. Thus the dace occupies but one niche in a thermophilic microcosm. But these adaptations leave them confined to very specific waterways—namely, springs that fall within their preferred temperature range—and these oases are isolate, eminently fragile. Less than three inches long, drab olive above and argent below, desert dace are known to occur in only ten springs and their spillways, most of them located in the Soldier Meadows Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Some seventy miles north of Gerlach along a washboard gravel road, this fenced-off ACEC is a riparian haven, free of grazing and full of wildlife.
Beyond the northernmost edge of the Black Rock Desert lies the alluvial plain known as Soldier Meadows, a nearly 4,000-acre spread of hopsage and greasewood dotted with geothermal springs, hemmed in by humpbacked peaks and fringed with rugged stream-cut canyons. The upwelling water keeps the meadows green—as it has for millennia—nourishing coyote willow, bulrush, cattail, goldenrod and tule flanking the seeps and heated creeks. At almost 4,300 feet above sea level, Soldier Meadows sits just over the high water mark of bygone Lake Lahontan, so there are no calcium-carbonate tufa deposits, no wave-cut terraces in the surrounding hills. The plain is paved in basalt, obsidian, chert, chalcedony, slate, serpentinite—a mélange of lithic dross sloughed off from the ranges, spanning eons of erosion and deposition.
For twelve thousand years humans have occupied the plain, coming and going with the seasons. Northern Paiute and their progenitors were drawn to the many springs, those plumes of steam billowing up in the mornings and evenings proving all but irresistible to the itinerant foragers. One particular band, centered near Summit Lake to the northeast, called themselves Aga’ipañinadökadö, or “Fish Eaters”. They bivouacked on the plain, knapping their stone points and digging cattail roots and weaving tule stalks into weirs, sandals, houses. As whites began appearing in the mid-nineteenth century with their ox-drawn wagons and livestock trains headed west along the Applegate Trail, the Fish Eaters saw their idyllic meadow grow increasingly crowded, the springs fouled, the forage decimated. Sometimes, in their desperation, these bow-wielding natives poached herd animals from the travelers, cutting thick steaks from the flanks of horses and cattle and fleeing under the cover of darkness.
As the flow of emigration surged, so too did altercations between whites and natives. A military compound comprising officers’ quarters, mess barracks and horse barn was built here in the 1850s, the soldiers stationed to protect travelers from marauding bands of starving natives. Undoubtedly there were deaths, retaliatory killings and the like. Eventually the meadows would take their name from this armed encampment and the strife it embodied. The buildings have long since been incorporated into a cattle ranch, the enmity gone but not forgotten.
The meadows today are home to prairie falcons and antelope squirrels, horned lizards and meadowlarks, minuscule spring snails and creeping, alkali-loving basalt cinquefoil. Also desert dace, whose last vestiges of habitat are being encroached upon by non-native carp and sunfish and bass swimming up from the nearby Mud Meadows reservoir.
The desert is perhaps the last place one would expect to find fish, especially a species endemic to hundred-degree alkaline springs. But for this particular chub minnow, Soldier Meadows is quite likely the last place it will ever be found, and for how much longer, no one can know.