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There were scenes cut from the silent film The Vanishing American featuring American Bison. Fourteen bison to be specific. These were the first bison on Catalina, brought for filming and then abandoned. Today, the herd numbers around one hundred and fifty, but at one point it was several times that. Catalina bison have become unintentional members conservational debate and mascots of the island.
American Bison need a lot of space, and this is not just due to their size, but their behaviors. They eat over fifteen pounds of grasses every day, dig holes to roll in, all of which causes damage to the local fauna. Fourteen bison on a 76 square mile island wasn’t an issue, but every spring there were baby bison and the population grew. A straightforward solution would be to remove the herd, but the locals have refused. Bison have become an additional reason for tourism.
Instead of removing them, population control became the target. Bison were being shipped off for auction in the 1970s. By the 1980s, however, somewhere between 500 and 600 bison lived on the island! An increase in shipping and auction helped but was extremely expensive and difficult. Bison weigh half a ton and transportation was stressful for the animals. In 2003, one last attempt at shipping was made. One hundred bison were returned to their native lands in South Dakota.
Although the plan was initially met with excitement, a study in 2007 changed minds. It was revealed that well over half the Catalina herd are direct descendants of domestic cattle! Conservationists asked that Catalina bison no longer be used for boosting mainland populations Too expensive to be sold, too genetically different to be released, too big to be left at the island… what else could be done?
Birth control was the conclusion the Catalina Island Conservancy came to in 2009. Every year, the females are given shots. It has been a major success, and the herd is kept at a population between 150-200. At that size, it is healthy for the herd (socially and genetically) and non-destructive to the island. It would seem the Catalina bison are here to stay.