Edwin “Phil” Pister
On Aug. 18, 1969, a fishery biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game named Edwin “Phil” Pister held the fate of an entire vertebrate species – the Owens Pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus) – in two buckets.
The pupfish was once a common inhabitant of the vast marshlands that stretched throughout eastern California’s Owens Valley. But decades of habitat destruction and the introduction of nonnative largemouth bass (“chainsaws with fins,” Phil called them) reduced the pupfish’s population to just one: a room-sized spring-fed pond called Fish Slough. The pond was almost completely dry when Phil got the call. He dropped what he was doing – ironically, planning the introduction of nonnative trout into a man-made reservoir – and gunned it to Fish Slough.
There was no time to think. Phil and a colleague netted the surviving 800 pupfish, placed them into three wire mesh cages, and sunk the cages into the main channel of the slough. Later they would scout out more favorable locations and move the fish again. After a quick dinner break Phil returned to complete his work, only to discover hundreds of dead and dying pupfish. Unfortunately, in his haste to rescue the species, Phil had placed the cages in eddies just outside of the slough’s main current.
Dangerously low water levels and insufficient oxygen were taking their toll on the overcrowded pupfish, already stressed by unavoidably rough treatment on a hot summer afternoon in the middle of the desert. Temporarily alone in the marsh, Phil ran to his pickup truck, grabbed the only two buckets he had, and netted the gasping fish. He had to find someplace to move them now or the species would go extinct.
Phil was scared to death. As he lugged the two buckets, each weighing more than 30 pounds, over the uneven marsh terrain, he worried about tripping over barbed wire or stepping into a rodent burrow.
“Please don’t let me stumble,” he pleaded with himself. “For a few frightening moments,” he later remembered, “there was only myself standing between life and extinction.”
Phil did not stumble. The Owens pupfish survives in two well-protected refugia. And Phil went on to found and lead the Desert Fishes Council (DFC). The mission of the DFC is to preserve the biological integrity of desert aquatic ecosystems and their associated life forms, to hold symposia to report related research and management endeavors, and to effect rapid dissemination of information concerning activities of the Council and its members.
Phil died Tuesday, Jan. 17, two days after his 94th birthday.
Two desert fishes are named in Phil’s honor:
The Palomos Pupfish, Cyprinodon pisteri Miller & Minckley 2002, occurs in the Lago de Guzmán basin of Chihuahua, Mexico. The authors wrote: “For almost four decades, Phil Pister has unerringly and effectively performed the daunting task of preserving the integrity of natural aquatic habitats and biotas in North American deserts, along the way teaching others to do the same. His infectious and tireless persistence, enthusiasm, optimistic outlook, and unique capability to redirect conflicting views toward common goals have led to significant and enviable successes in equating science and a strong environmental ethic with political reality.”
Fundulus philpisteri García-Ramírez, Contreras-Balderas & Lozano-Vilano 2007 occurs in Baño de San Ignacio and nearby springs in Nuevo León, Mexico. The authors honored Phil for his dedication to the study and teaching of ichthyology, and for promoting the conservation of the desert fishes and their ecosystems.
The common name for F. philpisteri is Conservationist Killifish.
Phil’s efforts also were chronicled in a New York Times feature, which closes with the following, appropriate graphs:
Every few days, Mr. Pister drives up to Fish Slough to check on his pupfish. Sometimes he brings lunch, a ham sandwich. He keeps a lookout for the other creatures that depend on the marsh, like raptors and Fish Slough springsnails – a native snail the size of a pinhead that is found nowhere else in the world. It has no lifeboat, no Phil Pister to ensure it will survive the next century. Some people wonder if such insignificant species are worth the trouble of saving; he does not.
“People used to say, ‘What good are they?’” he said. To which he would reply: “‘Well, what good are you?’”