Fish Came First : Phil Pister Didn’t Make a Lot of Friends, but He Made a Mark in 37 Years at DFG


When Phil Pister retired from the California Department of Fish and Game this year, he almost heard a sigh of relief at headquarters in Sacramento, followed by keen apprehension.

If Pister (pronounced PEE-ster) was regarded as an agitator around the DFG, at least he was their agitator. The prospect of Pister off the leash was fearsome.

Pister, 61, was an associate fishery biologist with the DFG for 37 years, most of that time as a leader of fishery research and management in the Eastern Sierra and California desert, although he was known to wander far from the reservation.


Scholarly and well-read, with a penchant to quote Socrates and Aldo Leopold, regarded by many as the father of wildlife conservation, yet pragmatic to the point of exhaustion on a golden trout project at 12,000 feet, Pister viewed his mission as somewhat larger than just delivering fish to the frying pans of families from San Fernando and was not reluctant to say so.

“Back in ’53 we were mainly concerned with just making fishing better,” Pister said. “Then all these environmental wars started. We have some strong arguments in our own office. There are people there that think, ‘The license buyers pay the bills, therefore our obligation is to them.’ I don’t accept that. You have a deeper obligation to the fish and wildlife resources themselves.”

The height of modern man’s arrogance, Pister has said, is that “the earth has been here for four billion years and we should think these resources are here just for our use today.”

Pister’s resume runs 11 pages of published papers, lectures and membership in professional societies, but he is no egghead. He fumes that his colleagues’ opinions are shared largely among themselves, serving no useful purpose.

“The British are bad in this way,” Pister says. “The British attitude is to let the conservationists handle it.”

And he told them so last month when he lectured the Fisheries Society of the British Isles in Lancashire.


He once wrote a Sacramento superior: “When are you guys going to recognize the real world out here?”

Sometimes Pister’s conduct, borne of frustration, has bordered on insubordination.

“One time one of our former directors took me into a dimly lit hotel room and said, ‘Knock this stuff off. It’s embarrassing to me. It’s embarrassing to the department,’ ” Pister said.

“You just sit there and take it--and go on doing what you were doing before. Politicians come and go.”

The question has probably been asked more than once: Who does Pister think he is?

He still considers among his most important projects the rescue of some fish too small to attract anglers and too obscure to interest anyone but the most dedicated ichthyologist--the Owens Valley pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus), which average about three-quarters of an inch long .

“We had them in a pond where we thought they were secure,” Pister recalled. “Then in 1969 we had a real hot August afternoon and the pond started to dry up.”

Pister rushed to the site and started scooping them up.

“At one time I held the entire world population of this fish in two buckets, one in either hand,” he said.

So what? someone might say.

“Because like the canary in a coal mine, when species such as the pupfish perish, it is another small warning to humans that something is gravely wrong,” Pister says.

“When you lose a species, it’s forever. That’s one of the real deep concerns now . . . one of the reasons I retired. There’s too much to do. A person in good conscience just can’t retire when you’re in this kind of work. There’s too much at stake.”

Pister said one reason he retired was to work on “home projects” and spend time traveling with his wife, Martha. But he also expanded a back-yard workshop into an office and hauled his personal files home from the DFG office on Line Street. Clearly, his work is just beginning again.

“The reason I retired was to disencumber myself from the bureaucratic stuff that you have to do . . . administrative stuff,” he said.

How far would Pister go to save a fish? He once went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Late in 1967 a fellow biologist told him a development east of the Death Valley National Monument was threatening a population of desert pupfish (Cyprinodon maculauris) in a small spring at Devil’s Hole--actually, in Nevada.

“I caught a lot of hell for that,” Pister said. “Here I am a California employee messing around in Nevada, and taking it clear to the U.S. Supreme Court. But my friend said, ‘There’s stuff going on here that’s going to affect California eventually.’ That’s why I felt legitimate in going out there.”

Cappaert Industries of Vicksburg, Miss., was starting a farming operation--”a tax write-off,” Pister said. “They were drilling wells all over the place, and the water in this spring started to drop. We were watching those fish become extinct.”

Pister saw the creature for its historical and biological importance. Pupfish are throwbacks to the Ice Age, when the deserts were covered by lakes as large as oceans.

They have survived because of their extraordinary adaptability. They live through temperature changes from 46 to 100 degrees and in water that is fresh or three times as saline as the sea. Their ability to withstand highly salty water could contribute to kidney research for humans.

Pister assembled a task force and wheels started to move. The Federal District Court in Las Vegas issued a preliminary injunction to stop the pumping until the case could be heard.

“We were up against the state of Nevada and this huge corporation,” Pister said. “These guys had six attorneys working for six weeks. We had one guy (who) prepared for the case between National Airport in Washington and the Las Vegas airport. All the defense attorneys were staying at Caesars Palace. Three of us split two beds at Motel 6.”

The pupfish proponents needed a strategy.

“We found out that the judge, Roger Foley, was a very strong Catholic,” Pister said. “When I got up on the witness stand and the attorney asked what I felt were some of the key issues, I said it was a matter of ethics and morality. You read it in the first chapter of Genesis . . . (that) it’s an immoral act to knowingly kill off another creature.”

One of the defense attorneys, Sam Lionel, stood up and said: “Your honor, I object. This is irrelevant.”

The judge said: “Mr. Lionel, this is one of the most relevant things we will hear during this entire procedure.”

In April of ‘73, the judge ruled for the pupfish. The defendants appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco, which upheld the decision, and that’s when it went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which issued the final, favorable ruling in June of ’76.

“To think we could take something like a 20-millimeter fish all the way to the Supreme Court and win,” Pister said, still marveling at the memory.

“It would have been easy to make all kinds of compromises, but here we had a principle that was so strong you just didn’t dare do anything but go all the way with it. We’ve got a moral obligation to be concerned with all species, whether they fit into our convenience or not.”

Pister’s successor is Darrell Wong, with whom he has led the fight against hydroelectric and geothermal projects that would endanger streams in the Eastern Sierra.

“We essentially set the department’s policy in that,” Pister said. “You don’t get much leadership from high levels within any agency, and the Fish and Game Department is no different. Those people are so hung up in politics that it’s never going to come from there.

“We caught a lot of heck, but we went far enough that when the department came along, they couldn’t back out of it.”

Pister never had much patience with the state bureaucracy in Sacramento.

“Fish and Game has been a luxury in their view, compared to their own pet projects,” he said. “People who find comfort in the status quo don’t want to change it too much. Bureaucracy doesn’t leave much room for a rebel. Leopold (said), ‘Non-conformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals.’

“I left the department, to the best of my knowledge, with no enemies. But I didn’t keep their friendship at the expense of being honest. Our constituency is not the license buyers of California. If we have to be faithful to any one thing, it’s that fish and wildlife resource. Let the people come second.”