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Island Bison Ship Out for Plains

Times Staff Writer

More than 100 of Catalina Island’s legendary bison departed the island forever Tuesday, herded into trucks, ferried across the sea on an industrial barge, and then sent on a journey that will take them to the northern Plains where their ancestors once grazed.

The transfer of one-third of the renowned Catalina bison herd is a rare joint effort of animal welfare advocates and conservationists, two groups that long have sparred over how to reduce the numbers of nonnative animals roaming an island whose managers have a mission of conserving wildlife.

In recent years some conservationists have argued that all of the bison -- the descendants of 14 animals shipped to Catalina 79 years ago for a movie shoot -- should be removed from the island because they have decimated local plant life and their health has suffered from overpopulation. Business interests on the island, which survives on tourism, argued that the animals were popular with visitors and needed to stay.

In time a compromise emerged -- 150 animals would be shipped to South Dakota while 150 stay on the island.

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On Tuesday, leaders of both groups watched as conservancy staff members herded the burly beasts through a maze of corrals into the two cattle trucks that will carry them to two Indian reservations in South Dakota. A total of 104 bison -- a scientific term for the animals that are often called buffalo -- were shipped out Tuesday and it remains to be seen if others will follow later. The Catalina Island Conservancy, which oversees 88% of the island, is studying such means as bison birth control to curb future herd numbers.

In South Dakota, residents of two reservations are making plans to greet the bison when they arrive on Thursday morning, possibly with a traditional Lakota blessing.

“They’re coming home to the Plains,” said Karen Sussman, a resident of the Cheyenne River Reservation who found homes for the bison.

“It’s not often that you take buffalo and bring them back home,” she said. “It’s a beautiful story.”

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The scene that played out in a Catalina Island eucalyptus grove on Tuesday was reminiscent of a 19th century livestock roundup, as conservancy members serving as ranch hands tried cattle calls to move the lumbering bison up a narrow ramp into the trucks.

“Hey-hey-hey,” they called out in chorus.

Some ranch hands resorted to a more modern method of noise-making, jangling poles strung with empty soda cans. When a female bison balked in a truck passageway, workers pounded on the vehicle’s sides with their poles until it resounded like an empty tin drum. One man lay on the truck roof, banging the metal with his heels like drumsticks. Thus persuaded, the animal went in.

In a nearby corral, bison bulls grunted, circled and knocked horns in a cloud of dust.

Throughout, animal advocate Debbie Avellana of Avalon watched with quiet satisfaction, camera in hand, grateful the bison were not trucked to auction to be sold for breeding purposes or for meat as some of their ancestors were in the past.

Avellana helped spearhead a grass-roots effort to save the bison, working with a Mill Valley-based group called In Defense of Animals.

Starting in August, the group raised enough money -- it declined to say how much -- to buy the bison and pay to transport them to two reservations in South Dakota.

Although they have disagreed in the past, animal rights activists worked in tandem with . the conservancy, whose new president, Ann Muscat, supported the animal welfare group’s effort and even donated $250 of her own money to help the cause. Several other staff members did the same. The conservancy is also extending the repayment schedule for the activists to pay for relocation costs.

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“The conservancy wants to work with people. Who wants to fight?” said Muscat as she watched the trucks fill up with bison. And Avellana praised Muscat’s cooperative approach, saying she hope it leads to a new era of peace between two groups that have sparred for so long.

The herd descended from 14 bison brought to Catalina in 1924 for the filming of a silent movie called “The Vanishing American.”

An icon of the western Plains, they have always seemed out of place as they graze amid the cactus-studded hills of the Southern California island.

One of Catalina’s biggest tourist attractions, they help draw hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to this island 26 miles off the Los Angeles County coast. Many gawk at the herds and then dine on juicy buffalo burgers at local restaurants.

As the island’s managers started emphasizing conservation in recent years, they studied how best to reduce the hordes of nonnative bison, goats and pigs that roamed the hills and canyons.

The invaders trampled fragile plants and ate vegetation that serves as shelter for rare animals such as the Catalina island fox, a diminutive native the size of a house cat that has teetered on the brink of extinction.

Earlier control efforts included hiring hunters who killed thousands of nonnative goats brought to the island in the 1800s by Spanish missionaries. The island once had 8,000 goats, but all of them have been removed--some by In Defense of Animals, which relocated them to a Bay Area goat sanctuary.

On Tuesday, even as the bison trucks trundled to Avalon harbor, elsewhere on the island the conservancy staff released five foxes as part of a program to restore the animal’s population.

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Once on board the barge, the bison made a three-hour trip across the water.

But the bison were not yet safe when they reached the mainland. The lead truck was blocked temporarily as it started to drive off the barge, leaving the cab on land and two attached livestock trailers still on the barge. The water level dropped with the tide, and the ramp from the barge to the dock tilted at an awkward angle. Workers rushed in with wood to raise the ramp so that the trucks could move safely onto land.

The bison will live on two Lakota reservations, the Standing Rock Reservation and the Cheyenne River Reservation. Native Americans there are attempting to increase the numbers of bison in their native tall-grass prairies. While older bison will probably be released shortly after arrival, calves will be nurtured through the winter so that they can adjust to chilly northern temperatures, Sussman said.

Back on balmy Catalina, a few bison balked at boarding the livestock trucks, so conservancy workers let them remain on the island.

One young bison, trembling and eyes wide, refused to budge from the corral. Debbie Avellana immediately nicknamed her “Little Debbie” and kept watch over her from a nearby walkway, cooing softly. Workers grinned at the obstinate calf. This hard-core Californian, they joked, was not about to exchange sun and surf for snow.


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