Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Bison, Our National Mammal, at Home on California’s Catalina Island

A Male Bison on Santa Catalina Island
Courtesy of www.islaearth.org; photo by Carlos de la Rosa 
Bison, which once freely roamed the American West, has risen to a new prominence since President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law last week on May 9. The legislation designates the American bison as the national mammal of the United States.

Often confused with buffalo, according to Live Science magazine bison were called “bufello” by early American settlers due to some similarities between the American bison and the Asian and African buffalo species. Native to the Great Plains, American bison found their way to the isolated Santa Catalina Island—a 22-mile island off the coast of southern California—in 1924.

Santa Catalina Island off the Southern California Coast, 2016
Map data © 2016 Google
In the illustrated story below, we celebrate the elevated status of these dark furry mammals in our state and nation. 

Fourteen Bison on Santa Catalina Island, near the Isthmus, c. 1924
Courtesy http://islapedia.com
In December 1924 a herd of 14 bison was brought to the island for the filming of the silent western, The Vanishing American (Paramount Pictures, 1925), based on Zane Grey’s classic novel. After filming, the story goes, the herd was left on the island, where over the decades its population grew to about 600.

Bison on Santa Catalina Island, near the Isthmus, c. 1924
Courtesy http://islapedia.com
The Catalina Islander, December 24, 1924:
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.

View of Catalina Island looking towards Sugar Loaf from the St. Catherine Hotel, 1927
California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California
The Catalina Islander, September 13, 1935:
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 . . . 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. . . . 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.

Avalon, 1939
Courtesy www.voncoelln.com
The Catalina Islander, October 5, 1939:
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.

A Wild Bison Explores the Rocky Santa Catalina Island
Courtesy of Catalina Island Conservancy
Despite the lure of the wild bison to the tourist trade and the island’s economy, preservation groups and local citizens became concerned with the health of the herd and the preservation of the island’s wild state. Efforts to control the bison population fell under the stewardship of the Catalina Island Conservancy, established in 1972. This involved relocating about 100 bison in partnership with California’s Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Tonva, and the Lakota tribe of South Dakota, as well as implementing birth control protocols beginning in 2009 to maintain the island’s bison population at about 150, based on a 2003 scientific study. The Conservancy’s efforts have reduced the herd’s numbers to about 135 at a recent count.

Herd of Bison on Catalina Island
Courtesy http://islapedia.com
Today—almost a century after they were introduced to Catalina Island—there are approximately a half-million bison in the United States.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager

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