Bison are said to have been introduced to Santa Catalina in 1924 for the making of the film, The Vanishing American, starring Richard Dix. Accounts vary as to the numbers of animals left on the island — from 14 to 24 animals. The herd was reported to have grown to almost 600 animals over time. Over the decades, the Catalina Island bison became an iconic symbol of the island. Today the Catalina Conservancy manages the herd, maintaining numbers at around 150 animals or less. In 2002, 2003 and 2004, island bison were relocated to native American reservations in North and South Dakota to the Lakota Sioux and the Standing Rock and Rosebud reservations, who were trying to re-establish bison on their lands.
The Catalina Island Conservancy " is committed to recognizing the free-ranging bison’s significance on Catalina as a heritage herd woven into the Island’s cultural and economic fabric. A primary consideration in this balance is the size of the herd. Based upon previous scientific study, the Conservancy has determined that the Island can support a healthy bison population of no more than 150 individuals. To counter a growing herd size, the Conservancy initiated a contraception program in 2009 as a cost effective and humane approach to maintaining the bison population at sustainable levels. This program has been extremely successful and no additional bison calves have been born since 2013. Contraception was halted in 2015 and no new calves have been born since. It is thought the females were accidentally made sterile by repeated contraception. In 2022 four females are being added to the island from the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd in Colorado at a time 95 bison remain, with 11 of them having cattle genes mixed in their heritage.
Multiple incidents of bison attacking people are known: in 2007 a man suffered a fractured pelvis; in 2012 a 9-year-old boy was tossed in the air; in 2015 a man was gored and his lung punctured. A male bison can weigh up to a ton, and a female up to 900 pounds. They grow as tall as 6 feet and live for up to 20 years. The island bison are smaller than their mainland counterparts. It is thought this may be a result of their they not getting the right nutrients at the right time of year, according to the Catalina Island Conservancy.
President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act on May 9, 2016, making the North American bison the official National Mammal of the United States. The signing of that legislation was a milestone for an animal that once faced extinction. The bison has played central role in America’s history, helped to shape the ecology of the Great Plains, contributes to the U.S. economy, and holds cultural and spiritual significance for Native Americans. Today, bison live in all 50 states and serves as a symbol of unity, resilience and healthy lifestyles and communities. The animal has become a legendary fixture on Santa Catalina Island.
- A herd of American Bison are sent back to the Lakota in South Dakota. Sponsored by the Catalina Island Conservancy.
- 2017 Duncan, Calvin. IMMUNOCONTRACEPTION AS A TOOL FOR MANAGEMENT OF FREERANGING AMERICAN BISON (BISON BISON)
In the News~
December 24, 1924 [TI/Avalon]: “Fourteen buffalo are free on Catalina Island. It is quite a unique experience to see a herd of buffalo, fourteen of them, on Catalina Island. But such is now the case when one ventures to the west end. Mr. Tom White, who is connected with the Lasky Film Company of Hollywood, shipped the animals to the Isthmus last week, and they were later turned loose to browse on the hillsides west of the Isthmus. The animals were shipped to Catalina Harbor in separate crates, slowly herded by Mr. Arnold Gillatt, and driven over to the location where they will spend the winter. It is quite possible that the Lasky Film Company will use the buffalo in a picture during the coming spring. Several of the animals weigh 1,500 pounds each.”
January 1, 1925 [San Pedro News Pilot]: “Buffalo are shipped to Catalina Is. Will be used by Movie Company in New Picture. Fourteen buffalo have just been shipped to the western end of Catalina Island to spend the winter. They are part of the "properties" of the Lasky Film Company of Hollywood. The buffalo were taken by boat to Catalina Harbor, the deep cove on the opposite side of the island from the isthmus. From this point they were driven overland to grazing lands near the western end. The forage is said to be better in this locality and the buffalo will be disturbed less that at a point nearer the eastern end of the island. The grazing lands are nearly 18 miles from Avalon. Next spring the Lasky company expects to use the buffalo in a location picture.”
February 10, 1925 [Lompoc Review]: “Sixteen of the eighty-six surplus bison that were subtracted from the Yellowstone herd this season have gone to California to join the movies. The Yellowstone bison have often been filmed on their native heath, and during the present season performed a leading role in the production of The Thundering Herd. The contingent now bound for Hollywood will be active in completing this feature. When this has been completed they will be released on Catalina Island, the Philadelphia Record says. The animals sent out from the park went to municipalities for the most part, but some went to game preserves and forests and a few to private estates. The large pair shipped went to Flo Ziegfeld. The bison herd in Yellowstone park started in 1902 with 21 animals, 18 cows from the Allard herd of western Montana and three bulls from the Goodnight herd of Texas. They multiplied very rapidly, and the herd numbered 780 on August 1. There were 120 calves last spring and 100 in the spring of 1923.”
March 17, 1925 [Van Nuys News]: “Bisons as Screen Stars. Sixteen of the 86 surplus bison that were subtracted from the Yellowstone herd this season have gone to California to join the movies. The Yellowstone bison have often been filmed on their native heath, and during the present season performed a leading role in the production of “The Thundering Herd.” The contingent now bound for Hollywood will be active in completing this feature. When this has been completed, they will be released on Catalina Island.”
November 1, 1933 [Blade Tribune]: “Catalina Buffalo Shuffles Off. Here are some real cowboys ridden ___[?] on Catalina Island in southern California. There was no corral strong enough to hold the high-powered bison, accustomed to roaming over the island at will. It was but a second after this picture was snapped that the fences were reduced to timber wood and the herd scattered over the hills. But even in their mad stampede for freedom, the buffalo herd guards its young. Two buffalo calves are in the midst of the running herd, completely hidden from view. The older buffaloes never left the young ones behind.”
September 13, 1935 [TI/Avalon]: “Buffalo invade golf course. We really wouldn't mind an occasional visit to the golf course of those burly black huskies, the buffalo, if they would only be a bit more observant of the primary golf rules, such as covering their hoof-marks in the sand traps, and replacing the turf they find it necessary to remove. Sunday evening, either just out of curiosity to see what was going on in 'this here' hamlet, or in search of greener pastures, a small group of the Island buffalo wandered miles from the main herd in the center of the island, to be discovered nibbling the tender young grass of the golf course — not exactly intended for a pasture to such large animals... It took until well after dark to finally drive them up the canyon to the stables, where they were fenced in until Monday morning, when they were taken back to the main herd by cowboys.”
October 5, 1939 [TI/Avalon]: “It's not news when one gazed at a buffalo on the hills of Catalina; but it is news when you see a buffalo smack dab on the main street of Avalon, and, of all things, window shopping! This buffalo was the largest of the many that roam the island, with a shaggy head, and horns two feet long. He stood his ground and looked over the astonished and bewildered boys who had just had their nightcaps and were heading for home. They rubbed their eyes to make sure they weren't seeing things... The animal was frightened away and back to where the grazing is better. It has not yet been decided if there is or should be an ordinance permitting a buffalo inside city limits...”
January 6, 1955 [TI/Avalon]: “Who killed two buffalo? The trigger-happy hunters who shot two buffalo at the east end of Catalina Island last week apparently have gone into hiding. Deputy Sheriffs Jack White and Paul Herklotz have recovered the bullets from the dead animals and are now searching for the weapons and those who shot the animals. Only a few weeks ago, Frenchy Small of the Catalina Riding Stables reported that one of his saddle horses had been shot and killed while it was grazing on the north side of Avalon Canyon, just outside the city limits. Because of this wanton destruction of animals in the interior, the officers have been instructed to arrest all persons not having "permits" from the Santa Catalina Island Company, for pig and goat hunting, and also to examine all guns in the effort to locate the one used in killing the buffalo. There are about 80 head of buffalo, many valuable horses, deer and cattle roaming the hills, in addition to the goats and pigs, owned by the Santa Catalina Island Co., and the deliberate killing of buffalo, horses and deer is inexcusable, say the officers.”
August 19, 1977 [LAT]: “Catalina: Where buffalo and the sightseers roam… Fearsome-looking but shy buffalo roam freely… The buffalo, about 400, are descendants of a group of 14 brought to Catalina for the shooting of a 1925 film, The Vanishing American.”
December 29, 2004 [Indian Country Today]: “Bison return home: Journey from Catalina Island to Rosebud. LOS ANGELES – In 1925 a small herd of 14 bison, also known as American buffalo, was brought to Santa Catalina island just a few miles off the shore of Los Angeles. The purpose for their move from the frigid Great Plains to the temperate climate of coastal Southern California was to appear as animal extras in a movie. That film, “The Vanishing American”, was one of the early silent epics and depicted a broad expanse of history from before Columbus to World War I. When filming wrapped, because of cost consideration by the film company, the bison were left on the island and went feral in their new surroundings. Eventually that herd grew to include some 350. Some reports claim that it was once as high as 600 individual animals and preservationists and environmentalists started to sound an alarm. Like the Great Plains, Santa Catalina Island is predominantly grassland. However, the climate and weather patterns on Santa Catalina Island are markedly different from the endlessly rolling plains of the interior of the North American continent. The differences between the mild wet winters and summer drought of Catalina Island and the extreme continental climate of the Great Plains in which the bison developed had almost an immediate effect on the animals. For example, the thick bison coats that kept many Plains tribes warm throughout the cold mid-western winters, failed to grown in sunny Southern California. The animals also did not grow to their normal weight because of both the mild climate and the lack of thick prairie grasses. Because they dry out every summer, grasses in Southern California tend to grow a little thinner and lack the caloric punch of the grasses that blanket the plains. The available vegetation on the island was also becoming a problem. Because of its geography and fairly unique climate, California also sports several delicate ecosystems with enough rare plants to make a botanist’s dreams come true. Since the ecosystem of Santa Catalina Island did not develop with large grazing animals in mind, the expanding population of bison was beginning to upset the delicate balance of the island’s ecology. Enter the Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit group based in Los Angeles, who has the often thankless task of balancing nature with human uses. After a study of the island’s ecology a few years ago, it was decided that the island could maintain a herd of 150 to 200 bison. The herd numbered some 350 at the time. After careful consideration the conservancy came up with a plan. Why not just return the bison to their native Great Plains? It sounded good but there were some concerns that had to be studied first. After nearly 80 years and several generations on the island, how would the change in climate affect the bison? With little fanfare the conservancy set out to find a willing taker to test the animals in a cold winter. They quietly partnered with the Cheyenne and moved 50 test animals, mainly intact families, to their lands last winter. The results were good. “Their genetics kicked right in. Within a few weeks [the bison] had grown their winter coats and gained on average 100 pounds,” said Leslie Baer who works for the Catalina Island Conservancy and was a project manager for the bison repatriation. Buoyed by the success of the test run, the conservancy then decided to repatriate 100 more animals from the herd back to the Great Plains. One of the problems with this was cost. Southern California is home to several large gaming tribes and one of them, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, located about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, stepped up with a little help from American Indian television and film character-actor and Oneida Indian Nation employee Sonny Skyhawk, who helped secure the funding. (Indian Country Today is published by Four Directions Media, an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation.) “We are very proud to make this historic event happen in an effort to return not only the buffalo but a symbolic piece of American Indian culture back to its roots,” said Morongo chairman Maurice Lyons. All that was missing was a taker for the animals and this is where the Lakota Sioux of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota came in. For many generations the bison were an integral part of Lakota survival. Some estimates claim as many as 60 million bison roamed the plains and woodlands of America’s midsection in the early 19th century. As most American schoolchildren know, that number was reduced to a little over a thousand by the end of that century, a victim of shortsighted U.S. policy designed to starve Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne and Lakota. The unfortunate policy worked and the tribe’s way of life on the Plains was changed forever. However, the lore of the Lakota also predicted a more prosperous time for the future. According to Lakota lore, a new era would be heralded with after the birth of a white buffalo. Many Plains tribes took it as a sign when a white bison was born in Wisconsin in 1994, the first since 1933. Sadly, that animal died this previous September, but the idea of that birth prefigured a re-population of the Plains with buffalo. With all the players in place and tribal lore on their side, 100 animals were taken off Santa Catalina Island last week amid fanfare and a ceremony. The ceremony included Morongo tribal members as well as Lakota spiritual leaders to send the animals off to South Dakota. After the ceremony the animals were loaded onto a boat and taken to Los Angeles. Reached briefly on the road in Utah during the drive, Lenny Altherr, who with several Lakota tribal members oversaw the transport, said the animals were loaded into two trucks to make the 2,000 mile drive over sometimes icy winter roads. Skyhawk later confirmed that the animals made it safely to South Dakota on the morning of Dec. 17. Baer claims there are only three remaining genetically pure bison herds left, a victim of the “beefalo” craze in the 1970s when crossing American bison with domestic cows, their close cousins, was attempted to create a new kind of healthier meat. Some groups, however, claim that the herd currently at Yellowstone National Park is the last remaining genetically-pure herd besides the Catalina Island bison. For that reason, because of the genetic purity of the Catalina Island herd, the receiving tribes, the Cheyenne and Lakota, have agreed to use the animals only for breeding stock to reintroduce their genes and have promised not to slaughter the current generation of bison for this reason. Baer maintains that given the new understanding of size limits for the Catalina Island herd repatriation efforts of excess animals will be an ongoing project as the herd size on the island inevitably increases. “We plan to find a new partner tribe [in the Great Plains] probably in about three years. This is just going to be part of our management plan.”
September 1, 2007 [Lawrence Journal World]: “California — A backpacker fell prey to one of Southern California's lesser-known hazards: being gored by an American bison on Santa Catalina Island. Jardrec Anangos was recovering from a fractured pelvic bone, a sore back and an open wound after he was attacked Wednesday by one of the descendants of a bison herd brought over to film a silent movie in the 1920s. "All I can say is I'm happy to be alive," he said. The bison "didn't like me standing that close and charged me," he said.”
May 2015 [Good Magazine]: Thinning the Herd. Conservationists explore birth control in the fight for stable animal populations. by Liana Aghajanian “
On a perfectly balmy day in the rugged hills of Catalina Island, about an hour off the coast of California, biologist Julie King peers through the crosshairs of a mounted telescope at a pooping bison. She records the time the droppings hit the ground, the identification tag of the half-ton offender, and which telescope was used to mark the pile’s location. A few minutes later, calling out instructions over the steady hum of planes flying overhead toward island's private airport, she guides fellow biologist Calvin Duncan down to exact location of the dung. “No, keep going back!” King yells out as he treks through shrubs to locate and retrieve samples of the fecal matter. Success is swift. “Bingo! That’s it!” Behind this unglamorous ritual, repeated two to three times a week, lies an oft-hidden practice making waves in the world of wildlife care: putting animals on birth control.
Across the world, out-of-control wildlife populations and invasive species are severely impacting the ecosystems they occupy. These creatures destroy the local environment and drain natural resources, making life difficult for vulnerable endangered animals and causing billions of dollars in damages. There are feral pigs in Texas, grey squirrels in England, foxes and water buffalo in Australia, and iguanas in Florida. In Chile, invasive red deer have put severe pressure on south Andean deer, an endangered species. And before the yellow-legged hornet caused devastation in beehives across France, a Siberian chipmunk invasion wreaked havoc in Paris. On Catalina Island, though, they had a bison problem. Faced with an expanding herd that was increasingly becoming unsustainable for the 21-mile-long island’s delicate ecosystem, the Catalina Island Conservancy, a nonprofit charged with looking after most of the land, initiated a program to put its free-roaming beasts on contraception. Four years later, the program has successfully reduced the teeming herd to a manageable number of just under 150 animals. Now in the second phase of their research, Duncan and King are tracking breeding behavior and hormone levels in fecal matter for a greater purpose—to see if this alternative approach has broader potential. King and Duncan’s hope is that their success with bison can be replicated by others trying to maintain the balance between flora and fauna in increasingly fragile environments. While approaches to dealing with the problem vary by species and location, worldwide controversy surrounding the question of how to manage free-ranging animals is at an all-time high.
“I think we’re moving further and further away from being able to use lethal control,” Duncan tells me. In the age of the internet and social media, fierce societal opposition to lethal culls — especially of America’s most iconic animals, like bison and horses — has become apparent. Yearly culls of bison at Yellowstone National Park, for example, draw angry opposition every year, where hundreds of thousands of activists demand a stop to the slaughter and have even attempted to physically blockade the operation.
Could wildlife birth control potentially be a viable solution? For now, these progressive management methods are working wonders for a California bison herd with Hollywood roots, left behind on Catalina Island and the cutting room floor.
In December 1924, the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, known today as Paramount Pictures, shipped and freed 14 American bison on Catalina Island with the intention to use them for background in a silent Western film. The details of exactly what film they were meant for remains murky, but the bison never appeared in any of the studio’s movies. With nearly a million people visiting Catalina each year, the island economy depends largely on tourism, and the bison became a major attraction for West Coast visitors. But over the next four decades, the bison population ballooned to about 600 animals—too many for the island to sustain. After several years of research, scientists determined that a herd of around 150 would be ideal.
Worldwide controversy surrounding the question of how to manage free-ranging animals is at an all-time high. The innovative tool they would use to accomplish herd reduction was a contraceptive agent made from pig ovaries known as porcine zona pellucida, or PZP. PZP was a failed human contraceptive discovered in the 1970s by Alex Shivers, then a zoology professor at the University of Tennessee. Though it turned out to be marginally effective for people, it just wasn’t effective enough — PZP fell short of the dependability and accuracy required to put a contraceptive drug on the market, and a synthetic form was never successfully developed. Rather than effecting hormonal changes, like human contraceptives whose active ingredients are synthetic versions of female hormones, PZP causes female bison to produce antibodies that prevent sperm from attaching to eggs and fertilizing them. This form of birth control is referred to as immunocontraception; by using a kind of vaccine, the method causes the body’s own immune response to prevent pregnancy. Unlike other immunocontraception methods, PZP does not affect hormone levels, which means it doesn’t result in changes in behavior.
In the fall and winter of 2009, female bison—called cows—were rounded up on Catalina Island, temporarily restrained in a squeeze chute, and treated with PZP by hand. At the end of 2013, the Catalina Island Conservancy released the results of Duncan and King’s efforts: They had effectively reduced the calf birth rate of the island’s bison population from 67 percent to 10 percent in the first year. The following year it dropped even further, to just 3 percent and then to 1.6 percent; in 2014 no calves were born at all. The pair had successfully, for the first time, curbed a wild bison population without culling or causing distress to the animals.
PZP is made at the Science and Conservation Center in Billings, Montana, by reproductive biologist Jay Kirkpatrick and his small team, which generates about 3,500 doses of PZP annually. The process of manufacturing the drug is laborious and time consuming. It must be done by hand, making the current supply limited and therefore relatively precious. Kirkpatrick, who is in his 70s, is a straightforward educator with a biting wit who rides a moped to work. He grew up surrounded by nature in rural Pennsylvania, where he had a pet crow and dozens of snakes. In a former life, he was a park ranger. But now, animal fertility experts, scientists, and researchers know him as “the godfather of wildlife birth control”—though it’s not a title he particularly likes. “Why don’t we just say that I was there in the beginning,” he says.
For decades, Kirkpatrick has been the world’s most vocal and successful pioneer in the realm of animal contraception. His foray into the field began over 40 years ago, when two cowboys knocked on his door at Montana State University in Billings where he was an assistant professor of physiology. They introduced themselves and asked a question that took him by surprise: “Can you make horses stop reproducing?”
It was 1971, and President Nixon had just passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, giving legal protection to thousands of wild horses living on public land. Because the act made it illegal to cull the horses, a new more humane method needed to be implemented to keep numbers at bay. “It was well intentioned legislation, but it had no element of management in it,” Kirkpatrick says.
Managing rising wild horse populations in the U.S. became a disaster. Because the horses have no predators and are particularly fecund animals, their herd sizes can double every four years. Their numbers rose from an estimated 17,000 to a peak of between 65,000 and 80,000 in the decade following the act, according to the Bureau of Land Management, the agency in charge of managing wild horses and burros. Over time, this has led to a situation in which wild horses cost American taxpayers $77 million every year — a majority of which is spent caring for the animals — and the question of how to deal with these populations has become a wrought, controversial issue. Horse advocates accuse the BLM of catering to ranchers, who they say scapegoat the horses because they have to share public grazing lands with them, even while paying low fees for their cattle and sheep to use the land. The horses are also often subject to what advocates say are cruel roundups, where the roughly 50,000 animals that the BLM feeds in short- and long-term corrals and pastures are herded by hovering helicopters, terrifying the animals — some of which die in the stampede.
And while animal birth control might seem like the most obvious, humane fix, Kirkpatrick has faced his fair share of criticism, too — animal rights groups accuse him of violating the reproductive rights of animals and trying to sterilize them. They want the horses left alone and managed holistically, but Kirkpatrick says that that’s not a viable solution. “You can’t do that. They’re not free-roaming, they’re fenced; they can’t migrate 300 to 400 miles if there’s drought,” he says. “That’s akin to putting a bunch of dogs in a big kennel, putting some food and water, and walking away.” He’s also faced cultural pushback from those who prefer roundups and ropes. “Whether they work or not, there is a culture in the West of course that looks at fertility control [methods] in wildlife as bizarre and crazy.”
Kirkpatrick has spent much of his time trying to persuade the federal government to implement wildlife contraception as a humane means of control without any wide-scale luck. Last year, however, the BLM administered PZP and PZP-22 (a longer-lasting version of the contraceptive) to 384 mares, and announced a plan to award 10 grants of up to $1 million each to create sterilization and contraception programs.
Despite slow traction with authorities and pushback from animal advocates, Kirkpatrick has made significant headway in other areas. The Science and Conservation Center now supplies PZP to tribal lands and sanctuaries in the U.S. as well to Hungary and Canada. In Romania, a contraception project was initiated last year to preserve 500 wild horses living in the Letea Forest, situated in the northeast part of the Danube Delta. It treats elephants in 20 different game parks in South Africa and sends out the vaccine to over 200 zoos in more than 10 countries. All over the world, wildlife birth control is cautiously being seen as a management alternative for overpopulated animals that would otherwise be killed.
Kirkpatrick calls the bison birth control project at Catalina a “model program.” He praises the “huge implications” of Duncan and King’s pioneering efforts, which have caught the attention of places like Yellowstone National Park, where 900 bison were culled this past winter. “They’re doing everything right,” Kirkpatrick says. “The whole goal will be to finally settle into a routine where birth rates equal mortality rates and the herd stays at the same size.”
Back in the field on Catalina, Duncan readies an air-powered rifle, preparing to dart a few cows with their annual dose of PZP. The orange dart, which he’s painted for better visibility once it falls on the ground, will hit the rump of a cow, administer the vaccine, and bounce out. “Number 54 is in a good position right now,” Duncan says. Duncan shoots 54, a quick delivery that startles the bison for a few seconds before they focus their attention back on grazing. “I think we’re demonstrating that the application … can be done in wild populations, and I think it’s going to expand,” he says. There is a culture in the West of course that looks at fertility control [methods] in wildlife as bizarre and crazy. Expansion does indeed appear a likely outcome as the potential of this method, unorthodox as it might initially seem, catches on with those charged with maintaining delicate ecosystems everywhere. The experiment with the island’s bison is a proof-of-concept, an isolated testing ground for what could one day be a solution to not only America’s problems with wild horses, but for rampaging animal populations anywhere on Earth, and the environmental and economic price tag that comes with them.
The dire plight of these animals fighting for resources is a consequence of human behavior, and killing these creatures to control population size is commonly seen as an unsustainable, if not inhumane, option. Since we have displaced them, shrunk or eradicated their ecosystems, and otherwise manipulated their fates, we must now imagine new kinds of stewardship that include a new set of tools, like contraception. But the situation remains complicated. Bureaucracy and politics are messy, and culture is a hard thing to change—even with a herd of hairy, half-ton bison staring you in the face.
April 26, 2016 [atlasobscura.com]: “The Catalina Island Bison Herd. A herd of 150 bison live on California's Santa Catalina Island and are at the heart of an ongoing debate between environmental protection and economic expansion. 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Santa Catalina Island is a haven for marine biologists, tourists, and history buffs. In 1924, the film "The Vanishing American" was being filmed on Catalina Island, and one of the scenes required bison. The film crew brought 14 bison to the island from the Great Plains with the intention of eventually returning them home. They never made it off the island. The film's funds dried up and in the end they simply didn't have enough money to transport the 10-ton extras back to the Great Plains. So the bison stayed on the island, ate the grass, and propagated. Since their original stranding many efforts have been implemented to help manage the growing population. Over time bison have been both added and subtracted to keep the group healthy.
Over the sixty eight years from 1924 to 1996, a total of 59 bison have been added, mostly male, to improve herd genetics. It worked well, perhaps too well. From 1969 to present day, 2,013 bison have been taken off of the island and returned to their natural habitat. This program has helped keep the bison population on the island from growing out of control - it peaked at 527 in 1987, and has since been brought down to around 150.
The owners of the island, the historic Wrigley family, have a strong passion for protecting endangered species like bison. The family turned the island into a conservation area in 1975 and let the bison stay. While a large part of the motivation was conservation-based, a vision of potential tourist dollars drawn in by the bison also factored in.
Which is exactly what happened. Today, Inland Motor Tours, a tour company that takes tourists to the island's grasslands to see the bison, generates a revenue of over $4 million per year. The bison are one of the biggest draws to visiting the island. But the bison have their drawbacks.
Catalina Island is home to 22 Sensitive Ecological Areas as well as 26 endemic plant species. It hosts a variety of native subspecies such as the Catalina Orangetip Butterfly and the Island Fox. The introduction of a non-indigenous species is almost always destructive to native ones and the huge bison with their massive grazing levels are no exception.
To solve this dilemma, multiple options have been considered. The tourism-friendly plan would let the bison roam freely, and would support a total of 189 bison, but it potentially damages more of the native ecosystem. The more eco-friendly approach would restrict their movement to a small portion of the island, keeping them out of Sensitive Ecological Areas, but in effect allow only 17 bison to live on the island. If this were to be done, it would be best to do it gradually, as the rapid removal of bison from the area would make dry grass grow to levels not seen for years, potentially resulting in heightened fires.
Both the eco-friendly and the econ-friendly options have their shares of pros and cons. Regardless, the bison have been living on the island for nearly 100 years and will almost certainly be there, in some quantity, for the foreseeable future.”
August 26, 2017 [Press Telegram]: “A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy recently shot a Catalina Island bison after the animal reportedly charged, ultimately requiring the animal to be euthanized. The deputy in question fired at the animal on two separate occasions on the evening of Aug. 18 in the area of Little Harbor Campground, sheriff’s Avalon station Capt. John Hocking said. The shootings are under investigation, and Hocking’s remarks suggested the probes could not only reveal whether the shootings were legally justified, but what kinds of tactics may be most advisable when deputies observe a bison that may be acting in a manner that threatens humans. “I am very sorry that this bison had to die,” Hocking said. “I love these animals.” The death of the bison caused some debate on social media, with some questioning whether the lethal force was justified. Hocking declined to identify the deputy involved in the shootings, saying he did not want to do so while the investigation is in progress.”
October 13, 2020 [Catalina Island Conservancy]: “New Bison to Join Catalina Island Herd. Catalina’s wildlands are a portal to exploring historic California. Avalon, Calif. – Bison have played a significant role in the cultural heritage of Catalina Island for nearly 100 years and will be roaming Catalina Island far into the future. Catalina Island Conservancy is working with the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd to bring two pregnant female bison to Catalina Island. The new additions will arrive in early December and supplement the genetic diversity of the current bison herd on Catalina Island with the valuable genetics of heritage bison. The herd – managed by Colorado State University, the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, and Larimer County – was established with nine adult females and one male calf in November 2015. It has now grown to over 100 bison, which has made it possible to share bison with tribal and conservation herds across the country. The bison have valuable genetics from the Yellowstone National Park Herd and, thanks to science implemented at CSU by Assistant Professor Jennifer Barfield and her team, the animals are also disease-free. "We are proud to continue our mission of collaborating with conservationists through this new partnership with Catalina Island Conservancy,” said Barfield, a reproductive physiologist. "We look forward to watching our animals find a new home with the herd on Catalina Island, where they can contribute to the growth of a truly unique and iconic herd." Bison have freely roamed Catalina Island since 1924. Fourteen bison were brought to the Island for the filming of an adaptation of a Zane Grey novel, believed to be “The Vanishing American.” There are currently approximately 100 bison on Catalina Island. The new animals will integrate into Catalina Island’s free-ranging bison herd in December and are expected to give birth in the spring. “With goals of maintaining the health of the land and providing public benefit, Catalina Island Conservancy maintains its three-part mission of conservation, education and recreation. The bison population is a key example of this delicate balance,” said Catalina Island Conservancy President & CEO Tony Budrovich. “The unique opportunity to see American bison on Catalina Island brings wildlife lovers from around the world to learn about a species they might otherwise not have a chance to see roam. While here, they also learn about Catalina’s endemic species, special Mediterranean climate and importance of conservation.” With its location close to urban areas, Catalina provides a gateway to nature for a diverse population to experience and learn about wildlife and nature just steps away from home. The best way to view bison is through a Conservancy Eco Tour. Bison are wild animals. People should stay at least 125 feet away from bison at all times.”
November 17, 2020 [LAT]: “In 1924, a movie crew left 14 bison on Catalina Island. Since then, the herd has grown, and the island’s small-knit community has embraced them. You can find bison coffee mugs and calendars just about anywhere in town. The LA Times' Louis Sahagun writes there is a push to increase the bison population, but not everyone welcomes the news with open arms. Even though bison attract many visitors, it has been not easy to see them these days. “It’s been tough to find the bison since the Catalina Island Conservancy in 2009 decided to try and limit the herd, which scientists say were not healthy and were destroying the environment. Therefore, in 2009, they administered a birth control program that was supposed to reduce the herd by not allowing them to grow in numbers. Besides, it was supposed to have worn off after inoculation seized, but it didn’t. There hasn’t been a bison calf born on the island in seven years. And, the herd has shrunk to 100 animals that wander all around the island,” said Sahagun. The conservancy has decided to try to grow the herd from 100 to around 150 to 180 bison. “Two pregnant females will be brought to the island in December. Each one will have a calf in the spring, and that will be the beginning of resurgence they hope of animals that people will be able to see and enjoy,” added Sahagun. However, the solution of adding more bison may not be as simple. “The problem is that these animals did not grow there. They’re not happy bison there—don’t grow to their normal size, have lesions, and they’re emaciated. The island is prone to drought, which means they don’t get the nutrition they need because there isn’t enough grass to keep them healthy, as they would’ve been in places where they evolve like Yellowstone,” said Sahagun. Concerns have been raised about the challenges the bison face. “Some scientists who have worked with those bison worry about their health. Is this fair to them? Is this humane? There is also concern about native plants on the island that bison wallow in and destroy. These considerations are not being taken into account because the bison are money makers,” added Sahagun. There are different opinions regarding the bison; the Catalina conservancy president and CEO Tony Budrovich say their core missions are conservation, education, and recreation. “What’s next is that the herd is likely going to grow because it is so important to the local economy. A cultural dynamic in play here is that the people of Avalon--for better or worse—a defiant characteristic of their culture is a resistance to change. Therefore, the bison aren’t going anywhere, and some people are saying, 'that’s too bad,' because they are suffering,” said Sahagun.”
August 26, 2022 [Catalina Islander]: “Last week, campers at Little Harbor witnessed a fight among multiple bison. Apparently, on Friday, August 19, a male bison got into a fight with a female bison and another bull. Yet another bison bull eventually participated. Heavy equipment was reportedly deployed to slow down if not disrupt the fight and campers were directed into cars or onto picnic tables. Fortunately, no human beings were hurt. Sadly, three of the bison drove the fourth into the water and the bull drowned. The incident occurred as bison breeding season approaches. This is a time when the animals may be aggressive with one another. Although the fight was apparently videoed, the Islander found few references to the incident on social media. One Facebook post speculated that the aggressive behavior was due to the administration of hormones. However, Catalina bison were last administered contraceptives in 2016. After getting confirmation of the fight, the Islander receive the following information from Catalina Island Conservancy President & CEO Tony Budrovich: Is this a common occurrence? “The male bison normally jockey with each other to gain a position closer to the herd of cows (female bison),” Budrovich said. The Island has more than 50 female bison that normally group together. At times the female bison split into two or three separated herds. There are two male bison who can always be found with the female herds. Most of the male bison hope to move into that spot which causes the normal end of summer pushing interactions,” Budrovich said. Can you explain a bit about bison behavior and interactions during breeding season? “Each of the male bison live a mostly solo life, which is typical of bison in any part of the country. Near the end of each summer, they position to try to join the female bison.,” Budrovich said. “These interactions between males are normally a bit of positioning and pushing. Typically, one of the male bison walks away and finds a space solo of other to plan his next interaction,” Budrovich said. How can people on the Island stay safe? “We always suggest keeping 150’ of separation between yourself and bison. Keep aware of your surroundings. A bison fight is rare but possible to witness. Seldom do they happen near people. “The Island’s outdoor adventure types should always be aware of the need for hydration, to avoid too much sun, bison, snakes, spiders, ants, insects, poison ivy, cactus, and the rocky surface,” Budrovich said. “Bison have been on Catalina Island for nearly 100 years. It is rare to view bison, so people love to experience these wild animals. The bison was named the National Mammal and has a strong following by visitors,” Budrovich said. “The Island treats bison like a conservation herd in that there is no hunting of bison, no natural predators and they live longer on Catalina Island than anywhere else in the country. We have nearly a dozen bison who have lived more than 30 years on Catalina. This is 8-10 years longer than most bison in other parts of the country. Their long history on the Island is cherished by locals and visitors,” Budrovich said. According to an article about bison posted on the Conservancy website, “Bison can run up to 35 miles per hour, jump over fences and are good swimmers.” According to the Conservancy website, “Bison bulls can weigh between 1,000 pounds and a ton, and stand five and a half to six and a half feet tall. Bison cows are smaller, weighing 700 to 1,000 pounds and reach a height of five feet. A bison calf can weigh 35 to 60 pounds at birth and grow up to 400 pounds in its first year.”
August 2022 [Smithsonian]: “The Uneasy Future of Catalina Island’s Wild Bison. One of Hollywood’s weirdest legacies, the herd of beasts lives under the watchful eye of local conservationists. In 1924, during Hollywood’s first golden age, 14 American bison arrived on Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. The animals were to appear in two movies being filmed on the island, The Vanishing American and The Thundering Herd, both adapted from Zane Grey novels. Alas, the animals didn’t make it into the former, and we don’t know if they played a part in the latter—the footage vanished long ago. But the bison remained, and some of their progeny finally made it to the big screen, in Stanley Kramer’s 1971 Bless the Beasts & Children. Descendants of the founding beasts still have star power, helping attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, but perhaps their most salient role over the decades is to bedevil conservationists.
Today, the herd presents benefits and challenges for local ecology. Visitors take bison tours, enjoy bison burgers (made from mainland meat) and quaff “buffalo milk” cocktails (featuring Kahlúa, vodka, half-and-half, crème de cacao and crème de banana—and no bison milk). Such tourism helps fund the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC), which controls 88 percent of the island and works to restore and protect native flora. At its peak, in the 1980s, the herd numbered 550, but concerns about the animals’ health and ecological impact led the CIC to ship bison off the island regularly. A 2003 study found the bison were still disturbing native flora: Their shaggy coats carry plants that were imported, such as fennel, to places they wouldn’t otherwise reach, disrupting endemic species like St. Catherine’s lace. The study also found the bison were smaller and less fertile than their mainland counterparts, partly from persistent drought. In 2009, the CIC launched a contraception program for cows, rather than shipping them off the island. (During droughts, the CIC places water troughs for the animals.)
Yet population control efforts may have gone too far. By 2020, the herd was down to 100; no calves had been born since 2013, and the CIC scaled back its contraception program in 2015. Before Covid-19, the group had planned to import two pregnant females to add genetic diversity, reigniting the debate about the herd’s health and its impact on the land. Calvin Duncan, a former CIC biologist, says an increase in droughts threatens the bison, but he believes they will reproduce again when conditions improve. Juanita Constible, a consulting biologist on the 2003 study, says relocating the herd could imperil the island: Without bison grazing, wildfire intensity could increase, as the grass, unmunched, adds fuel.
Evicting the herd would also hurt island residents—4,000 or so in all—many of whom rely on bison tourism. “Wildlife management is not just about the wildlife—it’s also about the human context,” Constible says. ”
February 4, 2023 [Catalina Islander]: “Deputies and the fire departments responded to Rancho Escondido Road regarding a medical rescue call. The caller stated his friend was riding his bike and was gored by a bison. The first responders were able to locate the man, begin treating him and placed him in an awaiting ambulance. The man was airlifted off the island in stable condition and was talking to paramedics.”