Bison 101 on World Wildlife Day

Catalina Island is known for its biodiversity and natural beauty both underwater and on land. One creature of particular interest is the American Bison (Bison bison). Have you ever wondered how such a big animal ended up on an island twenty two miles away from the mainland, and hundreds of miles further from the Great Plains?

Though now an iconic feature of the island, the buffalo were not always here. In 1924, a small herd of 14 buffalo were brought over to Catalina Island during the filming of the movie The Vanishing American. After filming, the buffalo were released into the Catalina wild and eventually more were brought over for a breeding program. Having no island predators near large enough to prey on the buffalo, the herd sized boomed to near 600 by the 1970’s! The bison were grossly overpopulated, causing ecological damage such as over-grazing and erosion. This presented a unique dilemma for the Catalina Island Conservancy: how do you maintain a healthy population of bison on such a small island? Studies showed that about 150 bison could live here sustainably. In 2009, after a few different ideas of how to preserve a healthy herd (including sending off excess bison to market in California or a reserve in South Dakota), a seemingly perfect solution was found. Currently, female buffalo (called “cows”) are darted with a contraceptive that has a 95% success rate. The contraceptive allows the conservancy to limit the bison numbers to just around 150. This is a great success story of wildlife management for the betterment of both the animals and people.

More than just a tourist attraction on Catalina Island, American buffalo are a national treasure. Weighing over a ton, bison are the heaviest land animals in North America. Don’t let their size fool you though, they can also jump up to 6 feet off the ground and run at rapid speeds up to 40 miles per hour. Though they used to be scattered all across the Great Plains, over 20 million were killed off as Americans were moving west during the 19th century. By the year 1889, only 1,091 bison were left in the United States. Today, after intense protective measures, bison populations have bounced back to about 500,000 with near 30,000 in conservation herds, like on Catalina. It goes to show that with some environmental awareness and responsible actions, humans are able to coexist peacefully with animals in the natural world.

Written by: Max Veenema