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The Magnificent Catalina Island Bison

Catalina Island is famous for many things, including the quaint town of Avalon; the various tourists spots such as the Casino Building and the Island museum; and last but not least, its profusion of fauna which attract tourists, biologists, and adventure enthusiasts.

This is where they made the 1924 film, “The Vanishing American”, and at the time, the movie needed scenes with bison in them. The film crew shipped 14 bison from the Great Plains, meaning to return them home after the shoot was done. That last bit never happened because of a shortage of funds, and so the bison stayed, fed on the grass, and multiplied. It turned out the habitat was healthy for these animals, and in time it even became necessary to cull some of the population every once in a while.

From 1924 to 1996, around 50 bison have been added to the group as a way to improve its genetic pool, but the plan seems to have worked too well. Since 1969, a total of 2,013 had to be removed from the island and returned to their natural habitat. The island has a running program which helps keep the bison population (which peaked at 527 in the year 1987) in check. Right now, the herd numbers around 150.

The Wrigley family, who formerly owned the island, had been driven about protecting endangered species such as the bison. Efforts by the family were instrumental in converting 80% of the island into a conservation area managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. Most of this was done with the goal of conserving local flora and fauna, but with the bison as with other species, there was also the factor of potential tourist inflow. This has worked out well for all concerned, with tour companies making substantial money every year, and tourists getting to enjoy the experience of sighting these animals in their habitat.


One of the dilemmas has to do with the new indigenous species possibly proving destructive to the native ones. The options being considered include a tourism-friendly one of letting the bison roam free, with the place supporting its current count of 1809. The eco-friendly argument, on the other hand, is confine them to a small portion of the island, but that would mean letting only 17 live here. The only given, for the near future, is that these magnificent animals will continue living on the island in some quantity.