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


BISHOP, Calif. — 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."

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