Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, February 26, 2015

Contact: Kierán Suckling, (520) 275-5960

Pioneering Desert Fish Biologist, Researcher, and Staunch Advocate for
Desert Ecosystems Dr. Jim Deacon Has Died

TUCSON, Ariz.— The Center for Biological Diversity sadly reports that a member, beloved friend, and staunch and fierce ally, Dr. Jim Deacon of Henderson, Nev., passed away Feb. 23.

Spring Mountains springsnail
The Spring Mountains springsnail, Pyrgulopsis deaconi, which is named after Dr. Deacon, is one of the many Southwestern species that he worked to save from extinction. Photo by Robert Hershler, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. This photo is available for media use.

Over the course of his 55-year career, Deacon focused on the conservation of desert fish and other freshwater species and on sustainable water-use advocacy in the Southwest. His work contributed to the protection of several threatened and endangered aquatic species, helped secure water rights for Death Valley and Zion national parks, and helped create Ash Meadows and Moapa national wildlife refuges in Nevada.

“Dr. Deacon and a few colleagues arrived in Southwest as young professors in the early 1960s, at a time when the western universities had no fish departments, no ecology departments, no institutionalized conservation at all. The field of ‘fisheries’ also lacked a conservation focus,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center. “Jim and his allies worked to build the needed foundations for desert fish conservation from the ground up, with no models to guide them. And because of their intense activist spirit, they injected aggressive conservation values and action right into the institutions, which has inspired the generations of biologists that have followed in their footsteps.”

For further background, read a groundbreaking paper Deacon and Dr. W.L. Minckley his life-long and similar minded colleague wrote in 1968, Southwestern Fishes and the Enigma of “Endangered Species.”  He was a founding member of the Desert Fishes Council, a unique and influential group of scientists with a long record of saving desert fish from extinction and putting many on a path to recovery.

Dr. Deacon’s relentless commitment to preserving life in some of its rarest forms, and to conserving the limited resources that sustain us all, earned him the recognition of the Center’s first annual E.O. Wilson Award for Outstanding Science in Biodiversity Conservation in December 2012. At the time of the award, its namesake, E.O. Wilson of Harvard University, said, “I'm very happy to congratulate Dr. James E. Deacon on his award, and more to thank him, as I know many others do, for his distinguished research on some of Earth's most threatened ecosystems.”

Dr. Deacon published more than 90 scientific articles focused on the ecology and conservation biology of desert fish and other imperiled aquatic species. He served as an expert witness in state and federal water-rights litigation, and has been involved in development of recommendations for water-quality standards and flow criteria essential to maintenance of ecosystem health and biodiversity. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Kansas in 1960 and immediately joined the University of Nevada, Las Vegas faculty, where he helped create the university’s bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. programs in biology and environmental studies, and served as chair in both departments.

At the time of his passing, Dr, Deacon was working with the Center to protect Great Basin springsnails, protect the fish in the Virgin River ecosystem, and to defend the Great Basin Desert against the catastrophic impacts from a proposal by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to mine ancient aquifers causing the extinction of dozens of species of desert fish, springsnails and invertebrates. In a 1994 article in The New York Times, Deacon warned that the “water grab” would wipe out dozens of the rarest plants and animals on Earth. Several scientific studies have confirmed his worst fears, including studies conducted by the same agencies that are still pushing for the grab, though they have promised the damage could be minimized with proper planning.

“Jim was a kind, warm and gentle soul, who always had a smile and a good word for those he met,” said Rob Mrowka, a colleague in the water war against the water authority. “And, at the same time, he did not hesitate to strongly and fiercely use his knowledge and expertise to defend native species and ecosystems from the onslaughts of hired-gun experts who knew little of the actual situation. From his testimony in courts and administrative hearings, you could easily imagine him, empowered by the strength of his convictions, rising out of his mobilized chair and standing like a giant before those who would needlessly cause harm”.

The Spring Mountains springsnail, Pyrgulopsis deaconi, and Las Vegas dace, Rhinichthys deaconi, are named after Deacon.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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