The man has no booming voice, nor is he domineering in his demeanor. He is affable and unassuming and yet commanding through natural favor. Edwin "Phil" Pister has a presence about him that draws one in. His career started with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, post-Korean War, and today he continues in conservation as the Executive Secretary of the Desert Fishes Council. His work has led him to the highest of mountains, below sea level, and to the United States Supreme Court. At age 84, there's no visible sign the man is slowing down.
Pister owns a California heritage. His ancestors settled in the San Francisco area in the 1850s, and acquired a large swath of land near Stockton brokered by a former general of the U.S. Army, William T. Sherman. What was thousands of acres has been divvied down to about 12 acres still in the Pister name. It's there that Pister came of age in hard economic times.
"I was born on January 15, 1929, the same day as Martin Luther King—perhaps this was a good day for rebels," quipped Pister. "I've never been sure of whether I caused the Great Depression or was the result of it. My main recollection was that since dad was a schoolteacher, we always had bread on the table. Many of my classmates in a rough area of Stockton were not so lucky. Dad made $200 per month in those days, a small fortune to those less fortunate."
Steady income and summers off were fortuitous, allowing the Pister family to make frequent outings to fish and camp. Pister recalled that Yosemite was a second home, "Dad loved the back country, and loved to fish and always took us boys along."
Did these experiences prove directional for the young man? "Unquestionably, but this didn't become focused in my mind until I was a Berkeley undergrad," said Pister. "My brother was a grad student in the late forties and he suggested I talk to 'Starker Leopold over in Life Sciences.' He had just been thumbing through the new UCB catalog and spotted the wildlife conservation offering. I had been in pre-med and Starker was just putting together his first class. I never intended to become an M.D., but at least those folks were interested in living things. I shifted my major and never looked back."
Pister remembers the passion he had for fish as a student—and one that he still possesses. "Strawberry Creek runs through the Berkeley campus, and when walking along I could in my mind's eye see a trout under every rock. These feelings all came together at that time, after having lurked beneath the surface since my childhood outdoor experiences."
Pister was an ROTC student and that landed him a commission in the U.S. Army in an anti-aircraft division just in time for the Korean War, though he never saw combat given the enemy didn't have aircraft. "Many from my graduating class, with little or no need for anti-aircraft officers, were handed a rifle and put in charge of infantry platoons," said Pister in an earnest tone. "Nearly half of my Berkeley classmates were killed in action."
Back in civilian life, Pister followed his muse to high country of the Sierra Nevada where he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducting trout research in lakes around Convict Creek. The gig didn't last. He was laid off and took a summer job with the California Fish and Game Department. That morphed into permanent work, and there he remained until 1990, working on California's state fish, the golden trout, and rare desert-dwelling pupfishes throughout his career.
In 1959, Pister started his golden trout work. The interest in the well-being of the fish started from the top. "We took Governor Pat Brown into the golden trout country. He had a deep intellectual interest in such things and asked me if the fish were safe," recalled Pister. "A few passes with a shocker [to catch fish] showed that we were in big trouble. Non-native brown trout outnumbered goldens in some locations more than 100:1. Our state fish was nearly gone." Pister learned early that it's much easier to plant a foreign fish species than it is to remove it. His love for the fish was manifest in his ardent efforts to create the Golden Trout Wilderness.
The term "bucket biologist" has a negative connotation, but in Pister's case, not so. In 1969, he literally saved the last population of Owens pupfish—moving 800 fish in 2 buckets—away from certain destruction. The rare fish were scooped out of a shoe-deep slough sure to dry, and moved into safer water.
Pister saw his first pupfish species, the White Sands pupfish, in 1949 while training for combat in the southern New Mexico desert. Twenty-some years later he helped fight another battle, this one to protect the habitat of the Devils Hole pupfish in his California bailiwick, a fight that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. The fish lived in a 10 by 50-foot window into the aquifer below Death Valley. Clearly, Pister still has ownership in protecting fishes that he believes hold inherent, intrinsic value. In remembering a phone call he got in 1976, informing him that the court ruled for the pupfish, it brought him to tears.
Today, from his home in Bishop, California, Pister helps steer the Desert Fishes Council, a ship that he helped build 45 years ago, all with a mind to conserve fishes that perhaps have the most dire need yet today.