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Postcard from... Catalina


There appear to be just two permanent residents at the Little Harbor Campground, a remote camping spot on Santa Catalina Island off the coast of southern California: the local ranger and an elderly bison whom the islanders affectionately call Brutus.

Catalina – smaller than the Isle of Wight and situated 22 miles from the beaches of Los Angeles – has one small town, Avalon, and one very small town, Two Harbors, connected by dirt roads, which twist through the scrubby hills, affording spectacular views across the cliffs to the blue Pacific below. It’s a popular weekend destination for those who want to escape the urban sprawl over the water. Its year-round population is a mere 4,000 people – and 150 bison.

This is the American West, so you might assume the bison were native to the island and thrived in this tiny habitat before Europeans arrived. In fact, the animals are a modern addition, too. Fourteen were supposedly brought to the island in 1924 to appear in a Hollywood film. But the movie was never made, and the bison were never taken home.

By the 1980s, the herd had exploded to around 600, and the Catalina Island Conservancy took drastic measures: a few bison were hunted, many were shipped back to the mainland and on to more appropriate habitats in South Dakota. Now, each spring, the remaining animals are targeted with a birth control vaccine, fired from a dart gun, which prevents them reproducing too fast and maintains the herd at a sustainable size.