National Bison Day – the first Saturday in November – is a celebration of the American Bison. The bison – commonly called the America Buffalo – is the National Mammal of the United States. These large smelly animals once roamed North America in massive herds, but were brought to the brink of extinction through a combination of commercial hunting, slaughter, and bovine disease transferred from domestic cattle in the 19th century.
While the bison really isn’t particularly native to California – my home state – there is a herd of the iconic creatures on Catalina Island.
The Catalina herd was imported to the island in early in the 20th century to be used in a film – either The Vanishing American or The Thundering Herd, depending on which story you believe. The 1925 version of The Vanishing American doesn’t contain any buffalo footage, and The Thundering Herd no longer exists; the film has been lost.
No matter which movie the bison were imported to star in, they were left on Catalina. In this closed environment, the bison herd became more and more inbred. Determined to be ‘ecologically dysfunctional, genetically and morphologically deficient,’ biologists found that the Catalina bison are not purebred, nor are they wild; their DNA includes genes from cattle and they can suffer from deformities like dwarfism, overbite, low fertility, misshapen legs of different lengths on a single animal, and behavioral problems.
The herd blossomed to 600 head over the decades. Some were taken to the mainland and auctioned off, but the herd was far too large for the island. In 2004 the Catalina Island Conservancy partnered up with the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Lakota tribe of South Dakota. Some of the bison were relocated to the Great Plains, and the Conservancy determined that between 150 – 200 head was the perfect herd size. Starting in 2009 the herd was given animal birth control to maintain that population number.
Overall, the American Bison continues to make a comeback. The Inter Tribal Bison Council has been making great strides with conservation measures since its formation in 1990. The 56 member tribes cover 19 sates and have a total herd of more than 15,000 bison. The ITBC’s focus is on “reestablishing herds on tribal lands in order to promote culture, revitalize spiritual solidarity, and restore the ecosystem.”
See you on the trails!