Bison return home: Journey from Catalina Island to Rosebud
by James May
LOS ANGELES - In 1925 a small herd of 14 bison, also known as American buffalo, was brought to Santa Catalina island just a few miles off the shore of Los Angeles. The purpose for their move from the frigid Great Plains to the temperate climate of coastal Southern California was to appear as animal extras in a movie.
That film, ''The Vanishing American'', was one of the early silent epics and depicted a broad expanse of history from before Columbus to World War I. When filming wrapped, because of cost consideration by the film company, the bison were left on the island and went feral in their new surroundings.
Eventually that herd grew to include some 350. Some reports claim that it was once as high as 600 individual animals and preservationists and environmentalists started to sound an alarm.
Like the Great Plains, Santa Catalina Island is predominantly grassland. However, the climate and weather patterns on Santa Catalina Island are markedly different from the endlessly rolling plains of the interior of the North American continent.
The differences between the mild wet winters and summer drought of Catalina Island and the extreme continental climate of the Great Plains in which the bison developed had almost an immediate effect on the animals.
For example, the thick bison coats that kept many Plains tribes warm throughout the cold mid-western winters, failed to grown in sunny Southern California. The animals also did not grow to their normal weight because of both the mild climate and the lack of thick prairie grasses. Because they dry out every summer, grasses in Southern California tend to grow a little thinner and lack the caloric punch of the grasses that blanket the plains.
The available vegetation on the island was also becoming a problem. Because of its geography and fairly unique climate, California also sports several delicate ecosystems with enough rare plants to make a botanist's dreams come true. Since the ecosystem of Santa Catalina Island did not develop with large grazing animals in mind, the expanding population of bison was beginning to upset the delicate balance of the island's ecology.
Enter the Catalina Island Conservancy, a non-profit group based in Los Angeles, who has the often thankless task of balancing nature with human uses. After a study of the island's ecology a few years ago, it was decided that the island could maintain a herd of 150 to 200 bison. The herd numbered some 350 at the time.
After careful consideration the conservancy came up with a plan. Why not just return the bison to their native Great Plains? It sounded good but there were some concerns that had to be studied first. After nearly 80 years and several generations on the island, how would the change in climate affect the bison?
With little fanfare the conservancy set out to find a willing taker to test the animals in a cold winter. They quietly partnered with the Cheyenne and moved 50 test animals, mainly intact families, to their lands last winter. The results were good.
''Their genetics kicked right in. Within a few weeks [the bison] had grown their winter coats and gained on average 100 pounds,'' said Leslie Baer who works for the Catalina Island Conservancy and was a project manager for the bison repatriation.
Buoyed by the success of the test run, the conservancy then decided to repatriate 100 more animals from the herd back to the Great Plains. One of the problems with this was cost. Southern California is home to several large gaming tribes and one of them, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, located about 90 miles east of Los Angeles, stepped up with a little help from American Indian television and film character-actor and Oneida Indian Nation employee Sonny Skyhawk, who helped secure the funding. (Indian Country Today is published by Four Directions Media, an enterprise of the Oneida Indian Nation.)
''We are very proud to make this historic event happen in an effort to return not only the buffalo but a symbolic piece of American Indian culture back to its roots,'' said Morongo chairman Maurice Lyons.
All that was missing was a taker for the animals and this is where the Lakota Sioux of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota came in.
For many generations the bison were an integral part of Lakota survival. Some estimates claim as many as 60 million bison roamed the plains and woodlands of America's midsection in the early 19th century. As most American schoolchildren know, that number was reduced to a little over a thousand by the end of that century, a victim of short-sighted U.S. policy designed to starve Plains tribes, including the Cheyenne and Lakota.
The unfortunate policy worked and the tribe's way of life on the Plains was changed forever. However, the lore of the Lakota also predicted a more prosperous time for the future. According to Lakota lore, a new era would be heralded with after the birth of a white buffalo. Many Plains tribes took it as a sign when a white bison was born in Wisconsin in 1994, the first since 1933. Sadly, that animal died this previous September, but the idea of that birth prefigured a re-population of the Plains with buffalo.
With all the players in place and tribal lore on their side, 100 animals were taken off Santa Catalina Island last week amid fanfare and a ceremony. The ceremony included Morongo tribal members as well as Lakota spiritual leaders to send the animals off to South Dakota.
After the ceremony the animals were loaded onto a boat and taken to Los Angeles. Reached briefly on the road in Utah during the drive, Lenny Altherr, who with several Lakota tribal members oversaw the transport, said the animals were loaded into two trucks to make the 2,000 mile drive over sometimes icy winter roads.
Skyhawk later confirmed that the animals made it safely to South Dakota on the morning of Dec. 17.
Baer claims there are only three remaining genetically pure bison herds left, a victim of the ''beefalo'' craze in the 1970s when crossing American bison with domestic cows, their close cousins, was attempted to create a new kind of healthier meat. Some groups, however, claim that the herd currently at Yellowstone National Park is the last remaining genetically-pure herd besides the Catalina Island bison.
For that reason, because of the genetic purity of the Catalina Island herd, the receiving tribes, the Cheyenne and Lakota, have agreed to use the animals only for breeding stock to reintroduce their genes and have promised not to slaughter the current generation of bison for this reason.
Baer maintains that given the new understanding of size limits for the Catalina Island herd repatriation efforts of excess animals will be an ongoing project as the herd size on the island inevitably increases.
''We plan to find a new partner tribe [in the Great Plains] probably in about three years. This is just going to be part of our management plan.''