Remembering Phil Pister

Remembering Phil Pister

When Phil Pister died in Bishop, California on January 17, two days after his 94th birthday, the conservation world lost one of its quiet heroes. And the “thinking community” of those affected most directly and profoundly by Aldo Leopold lost one of its oldest living members.

Edwin Philip Pister—always known as “Phil”—spent essentially his entire career working as a district fisheries biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game (now the Department of Fish and Wildlife). Based in the Sierra Nevada, he prided himself on staying put and resisted efforts to transfer or promote him to positions elsewhere in the agency. He wanted to stay close to the ground where he felt he could be most effective and responsive to on-the-ground conservation needs. In the world of fisheries and biodiversity conservation, Phil was especially known for his efforts over decades to protect rare and threatened fish species in eastern California and beyond, including the high-elevation golden trout and highly endangered pupfish of the lowland deserts.

Phil became a legend in conservation circles when, in 1969, he found himself facing a moment of crisis. He and his colleagues had been monitoring a remnant population of the Owens Pupfish. Once believed extinct, the species was found to have survived in one small pond in a desert marsh near Bishop. That summer the pond was shrinking due to reduced water flow. By August 18, it had almost completely dried up. That afternoon Phil and an assistant went into action, capturing and caging all the remaining fish, about 800 individuals, intending to relocate half of them to a nearby safe spring. But when he returned that evening to begin the process, he noticed that they had made a poor choice of temporary refuge. The fish were stressed and some had died. Phil made a snap decision to scoop up all the remaining pupfish and move them immediately to a spot nearer to the springhead. He had only two buckets in his pickup to work with. In the dark, he filled the buckets and carried them across the rocky desert. “I distinctly remember being scared to death,” he would later write. “I had walked perhaps fifty yards when I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species.”

Remembering Phil Pister. Image of Phil Pister taken by Martha Vought.

Image of Phil taken by Martha Vought

The experience led to Phil’s working with others to found the Desert Fishes Council, for which he served for many years as executive secretary. Even as he had changed the trajectory of a species, he found his own path changed in return:

August day… [was] a very humbling experience for me. The principles of biogeography and evolution I had learned many years before at Berkeley had taught me why the pupfish was here; it took the events of those few hours in the desert to teach me why I was. Such are the reflections of a biologist who, for a few frightening moments long ago, held an entire species in two buckets, one in either hand, with only himself standing between life and extinction.

What led Phil Pister to be the right person at the right moment and the right place? As he mentioned—and as he often told the story—his conservation passion was lit as a student at the University of California-Berkeley. Phil started out there as a pre-med student in 1949, but his brother, knowing his interests, suggested that he talk with a professor who was offering a new class in wildlife conservation. That professor was Starker Leopold, Aldo and Estella Leopold’s eldest child.

Phil enrolled in Starker’s class. He remembered the professor coming into class one day carrying a sheath of mimeographed material.  “He set it down on the table and said ‘Here’s some stuff that you folks might like to look at.  It’s some stuff that Dad wrote. It was the first draft of A Sand County Almanac—six months before it was published.” As Phil recalled, the field—and even the term—environmental ethics would not come into focus for many decades. But he absorbed its principles “by inference.  …I was inoculated early on. I think, philosophically [that] allowed me to do many of the things I did. I wouldn’t have done them if it hadn’t been for the influence of Starker and his dad.”

In time, biodiversity conservation would catch up with Phil.  In the 1980s and 1990s, the traditional natural resource management disciplines (forestry, wildlife management, fisheries management, range management, etc.) were evolving to meet the challenge of conserving all species, not just those of immediate or obvious economic value. Conservationists had to consider the forces at work in shaping whole landscapes and ecosystems. Those forces included, profoundly, our own human values and attitudes, but few conservation biologists were trained to understand and appreciate those ethical aspects of their work. With his years of “field cred” behind him, Phil was in demand as a speaker, and his message was constant. We have a fundamental obligation to care for all forms of life.  Future generations are depending on us. Our loyalties as conservation professionals and as conscientious citizens must be, first and foremost, to the community of life in all its diversity. Sometimes, in following one’s conscience, one must fight established power and take risks. We may all find ourselves with our own deserts to cross, buckets in hand.

For many who knew and worked with Phil, the most remarkable thing about him was not his vast field experience, or his firm ethical commitment, or his broad thinking about conservation. All of these qualities he held in abundance. But his most enduring trait may be that, somehow, he matched his reverence for life’s beauty and diversity with his irreverence in the face of discouragement, reluctant bureaucracies, and the slow spread of an ecological conscience. Phil was simply a delight to be around. He carried his ethics—and his buckets—with an irrepressible sense of humor, all the better shared when augmented by his favorite margarita.

And yet Phil could also turn a little pensive when he noted, with pride, that he shared an exact birthday with Dr. Martin Luther King:  January 15, 1929. “Perhaps that was a good day for rebels,” he said. He was similarly fond of quoting one of Aldo Leopold’s lesser known lines: “Nonconformity is the highest evolutionary attainment of social animals.”

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The top portrait of Phil was borrowed from


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