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Bison return home: Journey from Catalina Island to Rosebud

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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 shortsighted 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."