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 that were filmed on the island, The American Who Disappears other the thunderous herd, both adapted from the Zane Gray novels. Unfortunately, the animals didn’t make it to the first, and we don’t know if they played a role in the second: the footage is long gone. But the bison stayed, and some of their descendants finally made it to the big screen, in Stanley Kramer’s 1971. Bless the beasts and the children. Descendants of the founding beasts still wield star power, helping to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, but perhaps their most prominent role for decades has been to torment conservationists.
Today, the herd presents benefits and challenges to the local ecology. Visitors take bison tours, enjoy bison burgers (made with meat from the mainland), and drink “buffalo milk” cocktails (with Kahlúa, vodka, half and half, creme de cacao and cream of banana, and no buffalo milk). bison). Said tourism helps finance the non-profit organization Catalina Island Conservancy (CIC), which controls 88 percent of the island and works to restore and protect the native flora.
At its height in the 1980s, the herd numbered 550, but concerns about the animals’ health and ecological impact led the CIC to regularly ship bison off the island. A 2003 study found that bison were still disturbing native flora: Their shaggy coats carry plants that were imported, like fennel, to places they might not otherwise reach, disrupting endemic species like Santa Catalina lace. The study also found that bison were smaller and less fertile than their mainland counterparts, in part due to persistent drought. In 2009, the CIC launched a contraception program for cows, instead of sending them off the island. (During droughts, the CIC places drinking fountains for the animals).
However, population control efforts may have gone too far. By 2020, the herd had been reduced 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 debate about herd health and its impact in the country. Calvin Duncan, a former CIC biologist, says an increase in drought threatens the bison, but he thinks they will breed again when conditions improve. Juanita Constible, a consulting biologist on the 2003 study, says that relocating the herd could endanger the island: Without bison grazing, wildfire intensity could increase, as unchewed grass adds fuel.
Evicting the herd would also hurt the island’s residents (4,000 in total), many of whom depend on bison tourism. “Wildlife management isn’t just about wildlife, it’s also about the human context,” says Constible.