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Catalina Island Bison herded by Arnold Gilatt, c. 1924
Fourteen Bison on Santa Catalina Island, near the isthmus, c. 1924
Bison on Santa Catalina Island, near the isthmus, c. 1924

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.

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 is 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.

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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.”

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...”

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 []: “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.”