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Catalina is an “Oceanic” island—meaning that it’s never been connected to the mainland. Anything that lives here had to arrive by wind, wing or wave, or, was brought by people. Catalina’s bison fall into the last category! Fourteen American bison were brought to Catalina in 1924 for the making of the Zane Grey film The Vanishing American. After all that effort, the footage of the Bison didn’t make the final cut, and they do not appear in the movie. When filming was completed, the production company left the animals behind! Though pickings were slim during the hot, dry summers, the animals survived on limited grasses, crunchy coastal scrub and a mix of plants not typically considered as prime bison forage. The hearty animals much prefer the lush grasses of the plains, but the herd managed to adapt and increase in number.

In 1934, ten years after the original 14 animals were introduced to Catalina, an additional nine bison were brought to the Island to augment the herd. In all, a total of 45 animals were introduced from different mainland areas. Conservancy and other records suggest that the bison population had increased to 400 animals by 1969, and then further grew to a likely all-time high of about 524 animals in 1987. A look around the
Issue #1 / All About Bison

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landscape revealed how the herd was negatively impacting Catalina’s ecology. With many individuals weighing in at over a thousand pounds, the bison took a toll on the native plants by trampling and compacting soil. Keep in mind that the largest native grazer on Catalina is the Catalina California ground squirrel, with a head about the size of a walnut. The plants on Catalina lost most of their defenses to big grazers a long, long time ago.
Big animals tend to have other big impacts too. Wallows—muddy, dusty places where bison like to roll to cool off and rid themselves of parasitic insects—became plentiful, creating bare spots across the landscape that can accelerate erosion. Having 500 non-native bison wandering through the Conservancy’s nature preserve just wasn’t healthy for the ecosystem, or the bison!
The Catalina Island Conservancy took over management of the bison in 1972, when it began assessing the impacts of these (and other) non-native animals on the landscape. By 2003, more than 1,900 head had been shipped off the Island to auction. But that didn’t seem like a fitting end for these majestic animals that had by now become an icon of Catalina Island. The Conservancy began looking for a better approach.
Find out what happened next, click here.


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