In August, 1969, Phil Pister carried two buckets of Owens pupfish away from a dying spring – the last individuals of a once-common species, pushed to the edge of extinction by habitat destruction and predation by introduced crayfish and bass. Phil placed the buckets in his truck, drove four miles over rough desert roads, and dumped the fish in “BLM Springs,” where the pupfish survived and flourished, and where they persist to this day. I had heard about Phil’s work on behalf of native desert fish, and had read an account of his experiences with Owens pupfish, and so, when I came to the Owens Valley, I wanted to meet him. He’s an 81-year-old retired California Department of Fish and Game biologist, who is anything but “retired.” He’s active in the Desert Fishes Council, writes prolifically, and still teaches; in a few weeks he’s off to the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia to led a seminar on ridding high mountain lakes of introduced species. Phil’s energy gives me hope for our collective future, and for my personal one. Age, he says, is partly a matter of attitude: “Hell, I’ve known people who are still alive, but have been mostly dead for twenty years….”
I met Phil at his small house in Bishop, then drove out to BLM Springs, with plans to camp, and watch pupfish. BLM Springs is in a spectacular setting – at the edge of a large marsh complex, with the ten-thousand foot eastern scarp of the High Sierra rising to the west, and the equally magnificent White Mountains to the east. The main part of the spring is perhaps twenty meters by ten meters in area, and about 1.5 meters deep; a narrow channel curves off to the east, where it drains into Fish Slough. When I arrived at the spring, I saw a few pupfish, clustered around “vents” where fresh water welled up from the bottom of the pool. But then the desert winds blew up, and the chop obscured everything below the surface. It was the sort of wind that kicks up clouds of dust, and makes you curl into yourself. I went to sleep irritable and spitting sand, but awoke at midnight, to a full moon and beautiful calm. I got up and walked down to the spring, where the reeds shivered, gently. A bat flicked across the surface of the pool, and the Sierra stood clear to the west, in a garden of silvered light. I clicked on my headlamp, and there, at the bottom of the pool, were the pupfish, each no more than a few inches long: beautiful swimmers, refugees from the Pleistocene, alive to their possible futures. I watched them for a few minutes, then went back to sleep in the warm desert stillness.
BLM Springs; High Sierra in the distance
Owens pupfish (UCDavis image)