March 22, 2023

Phil Pister, a biologist who singlehandedly saved a rare fish from extinction by walking through the desert at night with two buckets in his hands, has died at 94.


A biologist who single-handedly saved a rare fish from extinction by lugging buckets across the desert has died. Edwin Phil Pister spent his life working as a state fisheries biologist in California’s deserts and eastern Sierra.


As he describes in an oral history from UC Berkeley, it was August 18, 1969, when his assistant burst into his office.


EDWIN PHIL PISTER: And he said, Phil, we better get out there to Fish Slough. That pond is drying up.

SHAPIRO: That pond was the last known refuge of the Owens pupfish. So they sped to the pond – a 15-minute drive he says they did in 10. After they’d loaded the fish into underwater cages for transport, Pister sent the others to grab dinner.

KELLY: It was then he realized the fish were already dying. So he grabbed a couple buckets’ worth of fish and began walking to the truck – a quarter mile over potholed terrain, in the dark – a 30-pound sloshing bucket in each hand.


PISTER: Well, this was a traumatic thing, really, because I was keenly aware of the fact that these fish were nearly gone. And I had the only fish in these buckets. And if something had gone wrong on these fish, the species would be extinct now. It’s just at that ragged edge of extinction.

MICHAEL BOGAN: Philip Pister was an amazing force of nature.

SHAPIRO: Michael Bogan is a biologist at the University of Arizona. He says Pister knew the fight to conserve the environment was a multigenerational one, so he mentored others like Bogan to carry on those efforts.

KELLY: Bogan first reached out to him in college after writing a paper about Pister’s work.

BOGAN: And my undergrad advisor said, well, why don’t you just write to Phil? And I thought, that’s crazy. Like, Phil’s, you know, this famous guy. He’s not going to respond to some random college student in California. But to my surprise, he did respond. And he said, oh, this is great to learn from you. And when you’re in Bishop, you know, give me a call, and we’ll go get a beer.

KELLY: Bogan says Pister’s life also made clear the impact one person could have – whether literally saving pupfish from extinction with a couple of buckets or paving the way for a Supreme Court fight that would preserve the pupfish’s right to live.

SHAPIRO: Environmental writer Elizabeth Kolbert says Pister would often sum up his philosophy this way.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: People would always ask him, you know, when he was devoting his life to this task, what good are pupfish? And his response, which I think bears repeating, was always, what good are you?

BOGAN: Yeah. And I think that’s really the heart of Phil wanting to get people to really give thought behind the tiny little things in our world that they thought weren’t important. And what is your purpose, right? If the pupfish don’t matter, do you matter?

KELLY: Phil Pister died last week. He was 94 years old.


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