This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Humans Saving Species

An Entire Species in Two Buckets

[The naturalist] looks upon every species of animal and plant now living as the individual letters which go to make one of the volumes of our earth’s history; and, as a few lost letters may make a sentence unintelligible, so the extinction of the numerous forms of life which the progress of cultivation invariably entails will necessarily render obsolete this invaluable record of the past. It is, therefore, an important object [to preserve them]…If this is not done, future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations.

— Alfred Russel Wallace, 1863

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.
— Aldo Leopold

Please don’t let me stumble. If I drop these buckets we won’t have another chance! I had walked perhaps fifty yards when I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species.
— Edwin Philip Pister

On 18 August 1969, an assistant burst into the office of a biologist named Phil Pister. The two worked for the California Department of Fish and Game. The interloper shouted, “Phil, if we don’t get out to Fish Slough immediately, we’re going to lose the species.”

Pister dropped what he was doing, later writing that the proclamation “was no exaggeration.”

They hopped in the car and headed north from Bishop, California, turning a 15-minute drive into 10 minutes.
Phil Pister in 2008 - photo by Jonwu311

At stake was the last living group of Owens pupfish.

Pister worked in a unique region of the world, bounded on one side by the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney, and on the other by the lowest point in North America, Death Valley. During the Pleistocene epoch, much of this region sat beneath gargantuan lakes. As time moved onward, the lakes became desiccated, leaving any native fish populations stranded in isolated bodies. Pister compared this fact to an inverse of Darwin’s Galapagos Islands. He wrote, they “constitute, in effect, islands of water in a sea of sand.” The finches and tortoises that developed on the remote isles were analogous to the strange fishes that remained in the desert west. The Devil’s Hole pupfish, for example, survived in one pool that measured 10 feet by 50 feet.

East of the Sierra Nevada mountains, north of the Mojave Desert, and west of the White and Inyo Mountains sits Owens Valley. On the edge of the Great Basin, this region is arid, though this reality largely stems from the overuse of the valley’s water for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The valley floor is 4,000 feet above sea level. Nearby Mt. Whitney’s 10,000+ rise makes Owens the deepest valley in the country. It’s also home to many of Pister’s sandy Galapagos Islands.

The Owens River snakes through the valley - photo by Mav
Owens Valley - photo by Ansel Adams
Owens Valley outlined in red
Wide view of Owens Valley

As the name suggests, the Owens pupfish once populated waterways throughout the massive valley. The combination of habitat change – sucking the water away – and the introduction of predatory gamefish pushed the pupfish toward extinction in the first half of the 20th century. Pister described this duo as a “deadly combination.” The small fish was nearly defenseless against largemouth bass, which Pister called “chainsaws with fins.” By the early 1940s, scientists thought Cyprinodon radiosus had vanished from the planet. However, in 1964, researchers discovered an enclave of approximately 200 individuals in Fish Slough, a small sliver of marshland in the desert.

This rediscovery led to one of the planet’s nascent recovery efforts. The fish were transported to several other viable waterways in the hopes that they might survive. Despite their best efforts, the drying of the region continued to pressure the pupfish. By 1969, they had disappeared from each spot save a small spring in Fish Slough. In August, a sudden reduction in water flow from the spring threatened to kill the last pocket of the critically endangered species.

It was at this moment that Pister and assistant rushed to Fish Slough.

The Owens pupfish - photo by California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife

When the group arrived at the spring, they found it drying up. They gathered 800 individuals in underwater cages and placed them in a portion of the waterway with the most remaining flow. The group adjourned for a meal, planning to return afterward to split the fish in half, taking one portion to another waterway, to place their “eggs” in “more than one basket.”

Pister loitered in the marsh, worrying enough to have another look at the fish they had corralled. Despite placing the fish in an improved location, the water was so slow already that oxygen levels had depleted. The fish were dying in front of his eyes.

He sprinted to his truck, blindly hoping to find supplies that might aid the emergency. The rest of the group had taken some buckets in another vehicle, but Pister spotted two, in addition to a pair of aerators. He ran back to the slough and started to place the surviving fish in the buckets, “wincing as each dead one forcefully demonstrated the fragility of life.” Hoping the aerators would provide enough oxygen for the fish to survive transport, Pister set off into the desert marshlands, carrying with hin the last living Owens pupfish in two buckets.

Pister recounts the tale gloriously:

“Although the passage of time has obscured my exact words and thoughts as I lugged two heavy buckets and their precious cargo (each weighing more than thirty pounds) over the treacherous marsh terrain, I remember mumbling something like: “Please don’t let me stumble. If I drop these buckets we won’t have another chance!” I distinctly remember being scared to death. I had walked perhaps fifty yards when I realized that I literally held within my hands the existence of an entire vertebrate species. If I had tripped over a piece of barbed wire or stepped into a rodent burrow, the Owens pupfish would now be extinct! But good fortune smiled upon us, and the recovery continues today.”

As a student of conservation and ecology, Pister, especially in retrospect, understood the gravity of the deed he accomplished that day, and not in an egotistical way. As he recounted the story over the subsequent decades, he would receive the question: “what good are they?” In other words, what does it matter that a tiny fish survives if they never directly impact my life? Pister employed the counter: “what good are you?” He notes the “resource conservation ethic” of Gifford Pinchot, in which humans are simply one species within a global ecosystem and the greatest good is that which is greatest for the most in the long run.

More than half a century later, the Owens pupfish still exists, albeit tenuously. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains four populations, attempting to deter predator fish and invasive plants that can clog their homes. Despite Pister’s wonderful work, they remain in danger; at one point the Department fostered six populations. Even modern methods aren’t a guarantee of survival.

Imagine the responsibility of the moment. The minutes in which Pister carried a species in two buckets will never rank highly in the world’s historical lists of significance, yet each of us could be so fortunate to have contributed so meaningfully to our planet. How many of these small, yet crucial, moments have we forgotten or overlooked? And how could we calculate the net benefit these acts produced? The butterfly effect of saving a cog in the Earth’s machinery could be infinite.

The world would be a much better place if most of us would stop asking “What good are they?” and start carrying the weight of the little things that matter. Phil Pister died on 17 January 2023, but the fish he toted in two buckets continue to inhabit the planet.

Further Reading and Exploration

Species in a Bucket by Edwin Philip Pister in Natural History Magazine

Owens pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus) – California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Biologist Phil Pister — who singlehandedly saved species from extinction — dead at 94 – NPR

Remembering Phil Pister – Sierra Club

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