Stories from The Sage:
Tales from California’s Eastern Edge
Giles: Phil Pister started working for California Department of Fish and Game, now Fish and Wildlife, in 1952, the same year the department was created. He spent the better part of his nearly 40-year career fighting passionately for a family of very small fish that nearly disappeared forever.
Pupfish are not game fish. You can’t catch a pupfish without a dip net. A real whopper comes in at fewer than 3 inches long. According to Fisheries Biologist Phil Pister, who spent most of his 40 year they are some of the last living inhabitants of the great lakes that covered the Great Basin during the Pleistocene era. They can survive in water as hot as 113 degrees Fahrenheit and in pools up to three times as salty as the ocean. Certain species have been around for 44,000 years or more. They are purportedly named for their playful and frolicksome behavior.
Today, they live in scattered desert marshes and springs fed by groundwater, what Pister calls the last “islands in a sea of sand.” Prior to water diversions by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the fish swam freely in Owens valley marshes and wetlands.
Owens Pupfish were judged to be extinct by 1948. Pister began working for California Fish and Game, now Fish and Wildlife, in 1952, the same year the department was founded. He had the good fortune, in 1964, to be part of a group of scientists that re-discovered the Owens Pupfish in a small pool outside of Bishop. The experience changed his life forever.
On one evening in 1969, Pister found himself, after dark, carrying the last of the Owens Pupfish in two ten-gallon buckets off of Fish Slough Road. A graduate student had alerted him late in the day that the last pool known to contain the fish was drying up.
I asked Pister about that day in 1969, when he literally held the last of an entire species in his hands during an interview at his long-time home in Bishop.
Phil: Ok, here you’ve got these two buckets. Y ou find yourself walking across a field, in the dark. The sun has set then and its suddenly full of all kind of pitfalls. There are gopher holes and barbed wire fences that have fallen down–things like that. And I thought at the time,
“If I drop these things, they’re gone.”
There was not a back up at that time. It was the only population we had.
Giles: Phil recalled another time, in the early seventies, when a friend who was working as a naturalist for the National Park Service at Death Valley asked him to come and take a look at a little pool known as Devil’s Hole. The Devil’s Hole is the only home of the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, perhaps one of the most isolated species in the world, a spring-fed oasis in the middle of North America’s harshest desert.
The Hole’s vitality was being threatened by a development project that planned to draw groundwater from the same (limited) aquifer that fed the small spring. The developers planned to draw water from underneath Federal Land to create a new reservoir nearby. The National Park Service was none too pleased, and in 1976, The case made it all the way to the supreme court, raising the question, “Who owns the water underneath Federal Land?”
Pister spent years on this project, tasked once again with the onerous job of speaking for the pupfish in a world that did not entirely understand why. He told the courts about how this was the only place where the Devil’s Hole Pupfish remained. When the Court finally ruled, 8 to nothing, to stop the proposed development, Pister recalled being moved to tears. The work had paid off.
Pister testified regarding the status of the Devil’s Hole Pupfish, just after the passage of the Endangered Species Act. In his words,
If we’d lost that we would have lost the species, we would have lost the habitat, we would have lost everything down there.
Giles: Pister spent years on this project, tasked once again with the onerous job of speaking for the pupfish in a world that did not entirely understand why. He told the courts about how this was the only place where the Devil’s Hole Pupfish remained. When the Supreme Court finally ruled, 8 to nothing, in 1976 to stop the proposed development, Pister recalled being moved to tears. The work had finally paid off.
Phil: I was sitting in my office here, it’s where the Inyo Register is now. We just moved out of there recently, corner of Line and Fowler Streets, and the phone rings. [laughs] Secretary answers the phone, I could hear her in the outer office, and she says, “Just a minute Dr. Deacon,” That was Jim Deacon, Professor of Biology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, one of our strong supporters. And I said, “Hi Jim,” I knew what he was calling about, and he said, “Guess what Phil, we won.”
And I said, “Just a minute Jim, I’ll get back to ya.” I hung up, closed the door to my little office there, and I broke into tears for about 10 minutes.
Giles: Phil spent the better part of 40 years fighting for the Owens and Devil’s Hole Pupfish. He risked his career, his reputation, stood up to superiors to advocate for them, testified in court cases. I asked him how he knew this was the fight for him. Why this little fish, against whom the odds were stacked so very high?
He said he was enamored the moment he learned they were still in existence, the day that they discovered the fish were still there, in the little pool off of Fish Slough Road, in 1964.
Phil: When Carl yelled out, “Bob, they’re still here,” I dropped everything and I never picked it up again. It was a profound change in my thinking.
In the new testament, there’s a story, I think of Saint Paul. All of a sudden he was inspired to follow the Lord, you know. I kind of had the same feeling there.
My boss was kind of the old school Fish and Game kind of a guy. He couldn’t understand why I was messing around with these stupid little fish, you can’t eat ‘em you know.
If I had not been there with them, I would have been up at Crowley Lake, trying to help a generally unappreciative bunch of people from L.A. [Los Angeles] filling up the trunks of their cars with trout. Which is not a bad thing, but in equating good from bad, you know, there’s a line there, and there was something with these fish, where I could see something that would be enduring. This other [business]? Something that would just be a day or two.
And this was the Last of the Mohicans so to speak, this was all there is. So we watched them carefully, recognizing that the other things you do in Fish and Game are good, but they’re not profound like that you know.
Giles: Now 88 years old, Pister studied Biology at Berkley under Aldo Leopold’s son, A. Starker Leopold, becoming his student just a year before the publication of Sand County Almanac. Pister said the philosophies laid out in Sand County Almanac shaped his thinking about conservation. He says he’s optimistic about the future of the pupfish, optimistic about the future of the environment.
Phil: I’ve had perhaps, in my career, almost hundreds of people ask me what good are they. I think I mentioned this in my paper, but my response then is,“Well what good are you?”
It’s a good question, really. They have as much right to be here as we do, in fact they’ve been here a lot longer than we’ve been here.