Part of Catalina’s bison herd. (Photo:tinyfroglet/Flickr)
“Bison, on an island? Off the coast of Los Angeles? Aren’t they… out of place?” I asked my tour guide with the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Here’s what he told me.
“In 1924, 14 bison were flown onto Catalina Island to be extras in a film called The Vanishing American…”
“Oh, so they come from a lineage of famous bison!”
No, he said, and then continued.
It turns out you won’t actually spot any buffalo in the background of the film because their scenes were ultimately left on the cutting room floor. After shooting wrapped, the bison spread out over the island and instead of rounding them up, island owner William Wrigley, Jr. decided to let them stay. More bison were eventually flown in to increase the gene pool and now, nearly a century later, about 135 bison populate the 22-mile, picture-perfect island off the coast of southern California. So even though they missed their shot at fame, the animals did find themselves a new home.
Avalon (Photo: Jackie Strause)
Earlier that morning, I took in the views from my balcony in the heart of the island’s city, Avalon. My boutique hotel, the Aurora Hotel & Spa, is situated atop a hilly street and provides the perfect vantage point of the resort town. Families were riding golf carts through pedestrian-friendly streets, beach-goers marked their place on the sand with rainbow-colored towels and umbrellas, and sailboats and yachts swayed in the cove’s glistening, crystal blue waters. Avalon — which has a population of about 3,500 — stretches a mere two miles, which leaves the other 20 to the uninhabited. If Avalon could give a quintessential American beach town views rivaling those along the coasts of Italy and France, I couldn’t imagine the scenery awaiting me in bison territory.
There are many different ways to spend a day on Catalina. You can eat and shop your way through the streets or explore the sand and surf at trendy Descancso Beach. You can even get a bird’s eye view while propelling down five separate zip lines from a starting height of 600 feet. I chose to take a three-hour Jeep Eco Tour to find some bison. By the time I strapped myself into the open-air jeep with the aforementioned Conservancy representative, Scott Moyse, at its helm, my curiosity was at its peak.
Photo: Jackie Strause
It only took 20 minutes for our scenery to change. We climbed a paved road up and into the mountains where we crossed onto the Conservancy-owned dirt roads that wind around the island. With Avalon in our rearview mirror, we drove past reservoirs (each bone-dry due to the drought), through a mountainside of burnt trees still standing from the 2007 fire that nearly engulfed the island, and upon even more breathtaking views at elevations reaching 1,600 feet. If this were a studio lot tour, we would have traversed the set of Lost, taken a detour to see the Tim Burton trees, and were now heading towards Jurassic Park. The Catalina bison may not be lab-made dinosaurs, but they are 1,500-pound animals living in an unnatural habitat. And we were about to see them.
Photo: Jackie Strause
We drove up a slight hill and when we leveled out, there was a bison – all 1,200 pounds of him. “They like to keep a 25-foot barrier between them and us. They don’t like people any closer,” Moyse instructed as he inched our jeep forward. The Catalina bison, which live to an average age of 35, are 30 percent smaller in size than their brothers and sisters grazing the Great Plains (because of the warm climate, they don’t need as much fat to keep warm for winter), but their presence is still breathtaking.
At that moment, there were 135 bison on the island, even though 150 is an ideal number for the herd. The birth number is down because of the drought, which forced the conservancy to step in and provide food since there was no grass for them to eat. “They had taken it all,” Moyse said.
When the island decided to keep the buffalo, the powers that be made the decision to actively care for them. They are tracked and tagged with a number system – especially the females – so the herd can be controlled with contraception and there is help if they are weak or sick.
At this point, we started to take out our cell phones and cameras to snap photos. Famous or not, this bison was the star of our show and he knew it. He eyed us down and then hammed it up as he stretched dramatically and rubbed his head up and down on a nearby wooden plank. “You big gallupah,” Moyse said with a chuckle before moving us along.
Photo: Jackie Strause
We spotted two more bison along the trail, with one that appeared to weigh in at about 1,400 pounds. While the bison can grow up to 2,000 pounds and run at speeds of 30 to 40 mph, one fall can cause them to break a bone. And if they feel threatened, they will charge. We were told that if he or she starts pawing at the ground and making a sound, or if the tail goes up, it’s time to make a run for it.
Our third bison was relaxing against a hill. He was an older bison and missing a right horn, which sadly meant that he had gotten into fights with other bulls.
The bison aren’t the only animals running around Catalina’s kingdom. There are mountain goats, sheep, mule deer, horses, quail, a golden and bald eagle, the Catalina Island fox that are endemic to the island, and one legendary wild pig (there is evidence of his rooting, but they have never found him, so the story goes).
We didn’t spot many other animals on our tour, but we did find the island’s many other hidden gems. It seemed as if a private beach was around every bend as we stumbled upon Little Harbor (the site of 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty), surf beach Shark Harbor, and Ben Weston beach (the largest sand beach on the island), which are all dreamy coves where locals go to escape the tourists. At the highest point of our tour, we saw how the Wrigleys privately access the island via the Airport in the Sky, and at the furthest point, we got a peak at the ranch and five-acre vineyard on which they now live. Every 20 minutes seemed to expose us to another world on Catalina.
Still, the bison remain one of the island’s biggest draws. The Jeep Eco-Tours, which have grown steadily in popularity over the last three years, are one of the most popular activities on the bustling island.
“The bison are iconic to Catalina,” says the Conservancy’s Director of Marketing and Communications Matt McClain. “Last year, the Conservancy booked approximately 1100 tours, with up to six jeeps going out per day.”
I’d say the bison did end up finding fame on Catalina Island after all.