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Phil Pister: protector of the pupfish

August 9, 2012

Phil Pister


Our relationship with the unique environment of the Eastern Sierra is right up there with politics and religion: best not discussed in polite society. Opinions differ on the extent to which our lands should be cared for; residents disagree on which areas and animals need protection; neighbors debate the priority given 

to one resource over another.

But the intensity of 

these beliefs is an indication of an abiding love for our landscape – an idea 

presented here in this series on various local guardians of Eastern Sierra resources.


Phil Pister’s legacy will forever be linked to the pupfish.

He saved the little species twice, once through the court system, the other in a bucket. His environmental philosophy is simple. Why is this smallest of species worth saving to the extent that he jumped the traces of the California Department of Fish and Game and joined forces with Nevada biologists to fight a ranching/development operation all the way to the Supreme Court? His answer: “Because it was the right thing to do.” 

Pister, who retired from DFG more than 20 years ago, grew up on the west side of the Sierra, the range that became his playground as a child and young adult. When it came time to choose a course of study at the University of California at Berkeley, he decided if he were going to spend a significant part of his life working, it had better be doing something he enjoyed. Biology gave him a reason to keep traipsing through the mountains. 

At Berkeley, Pister studied under A. Starker Leopold, Aldo Leopold’s son. Leopold, considered the founder of wildlife ecology, developed the concept of the land as a living organism, a community.

Pister focused on ichthyology, the study of fish, after working on a research project in the alpine lakes above Convict Lake.

Enter the pupfish, a group of small killifish indigenous to high deserts, like the Owens and Death valleys. The name comes from the mating habits of the male pupfish, resembling puppies at play. Pister worked as an associate fishery biologist with DFG whose focus was more in the direction of stocking local streams and lakes than toward the pupfish. 

The pupfish has been left to adapt and evolve in waters isolated when the lakes that were once the Great Basin shrank. The Owens pupfish was identified in 1948 and believed to be extinct, due to the introduction of predatory fish and habitat changes. 

Pister outlined the “species in a bucket” incident in an article in the January 1993 issue of Natural History. The population at Fish Slough was located in 1964. By 1969, the little colony was isolated in a small pond below Fish Slough’s northwest head springs.

In late summer of that year, dense growth after a winter of heavy rains had, basically, sucked much of the water out of the pupfish’s pool. In August, Pister was alerted by an assistant, Robert Brown, Jr., that the pond was nearly dried up. Brown, Pister and his assistant, John Dienstadt grabbed buckets and nets, headed to the slough and dipped out the Owens pupfish, all 800 of the species. The fish were moved to the main channel and placed in wire mesh cages to protect them from predators.

Alone on the marsh, Pister realized the fish were suffering from reduced oxygen in what was supposed to be their safe haven. He ended up moving them upstream, in two buckets over the rough terrain. If Pister had been less sure-footed, the entire species would have gone down with him.

The Death Valley pupfish tale is profoundly more complex, resulting in a Supreme Court precedent that federal agencies can restrict the use of water on or under federal land.

Pister was called into action on behalf of the Death Valley species by friends in Nevada where Cappaert Industries was depleting the aquifer that fed Devil’s Hole where the one-inch-long pupfish lived in a narrow, 200-foot-deep pool, feeding off algae that grew on a rock shelf. Cappaert was pumping water within three miles of Devil’s Hole to irrigate a ranching operation Pister defined as a tax write-off.

During the Federal District Court hearing in Las Vegas in the mid 1970s, Pister defined the issue as one of morality – you don’t, knowingly, kill off an entire species – a position Cappaert’s attorneys strongly disagreed with. Pister and the Department of Interior attorney had done their homework on the presiding judge, Roger Foley. Foley’s response to the question of ethical relevance went in the pupfish’s favor; Cappaert lost, all the way through the Appellate system to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

For Pister, the value of preserving the pupfish goes beyond the scientific value in a species that has survived since the Ice Age by adapting to wildly different environments. The value is simply because the pupfish exists, and “it’s the right thing to do.”


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