Even though they are non-native, bison have roamed Catalina Island for almost 100 years. The first to arrive by boat were a herd of American Bison in the 1920s.
Some Islanders will tell you these furry mammals starred in Zane Grey’s silent film, The Vanishing American. Others will tell you, it was another movie that never hit the big screen. What did happen, is someone brought them over by boat and then left them on the island.
With no natural predators, their population exploded to an all time high of more than 600, according to the Catalina Island Conservancy. It became costly tracking them all, and monitoring the ecological damage they made to the native vegetation. Catalina Island is home to more than 60 plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.
When some brazen bison wandered into the town of Avalon, they city officials knew something had to be done. First the island did some hunting, however animal rights activists didn’t like this solution at all. Next the island rounded up and shipped hundreds by barge, over to Wilmington on the mainland, and then trucked them to South Dakota to live on a reserve. That was costly.
Then a brilliant team decided to put the females on birth control. Every Spring, since the 1990s a team traverses the island by jeep and foot to shoot a dart gun filled with a contraceptive vaccine into a female cow. It’s working well in keeping the population down to a manageable 150 bison.
Recently with the drought conditions in California, its been tough on these four-legged animals and the humans that live on the island. Islanders have had to ration their water intake, as the island’s reservoir is way below normal. Large containers of water are being shipped from the Mainland for construction and irrigation.
The Southern California Edison Company installed a desalinization plant at Pebbly Beach to help with the water shortage, yet this doesn’t help the bison.
Why does the island keep the bison? It’s a big business for their tourism. Every cruise ship that arrives to the island has hundreds of passengers ready to take an inland scenic tour in hopes of seeing a buffalo or two chewing on grass. Where else other than Yellowstone can you do that?
According to the Catalina Island Chamber, visitors come from all over the world to experience the Mediterranean ambiance 22 miles across the ocean from the Port of Long Beach. Sailing on the Catalina Express to see Catalina’s wildlife is a big draw for tourists.
After sighting bison, tourists enjoy propelling down five zip-line stations that are located 300 feet above the Catalina canyon floor. Many rent golf carts to explore the town of Avalon, before grabbing a bite to eat at the Avalon Grille, Maggie’s Blue Rose Mexican Fare or Bluewater Grill right on the picturesque harbor.
Another favorite destination on the island is kayaking from the Descanso Beach Club to see dolphins, flying fish, California sea lions and the bright orange Garibaldi fish. Looking up along the rugged terrain, one might spot a bison or two grazing near the edge offering expansive Pacific Ocean views.
The bison are here to stay and will continue to thrive, as long as the islanders help them keep their population low and Catalina Island gets more rain. To learn more about Catalina Island, go to http://www.visitcatalinaisland.com. To reserve a boat ride to the island http://www.catalinaexpress.com/
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT CATALINA – Go to www.visitcatalinaisland.com
This article was featured in the May 2016 issue of NOT BORN YESTERDAY.