CATALINA ISLAND JOURNAL: Twenty-two miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Catalina Island struggles to maintain its bison herd.


Bison roam the backcountry on Catalina Island (photo Catalina Express)

Ron Bernthal

Twenty-two miles off the coast of Los Angeles, Santa Catalina Island is more than just a one-day tourist destination.  It is a stunningly beautiful island for environmentalists, history buffs and – any folks who love the American bison!  In 1924, the film “The Vanishing American” was being filmed on Catalina Island and several of the scenes required bison. The Hollywood crew used trucks and boats to move 14 bison onto the island from the Great Plains with the intention of eventually returning them to their prairie home. But the bison never made it off the island.

At the end of the film’s production schedule the company’s funds dried up and the studio did not have enough money to transport the “extras” back to the mainland, so the bison stayed on Catalina, ate the grass and, with no local predators, had lots of babies. Since their original stranding, many efforts have been implemented to help manage the growing population, not only to protect the natural environment but to keep the bison herd healthy and happy.

From 1924 to about 1996, 59 additional bison, mostly males, were added to the general population, to improve herd genetics, and the program has worked surprisingly well considering Catalina Island, a more Mediterranean-feeling destination than the American prairie, was not their original habitat. But the bison took to the mountainous California island so nicely that Catalina officials have had to draw down the herd over the years to lower the high birthrate. From 1969 to the present, more than 2,000 bison have been taken off of the island and brought to a Native American reservation in South Dakota. This method of “selective culling”  has helped keep the bison population on the island quite healthy and still somewhat wild, they are confined within a very wide area of grazing land by a complex system of fences, but can also appear quite close to humans at any time of the day or night, like right outside a guest room window at the Banning House Hotel in Two Harbors (see photo).  In the 1980’s the herd’s numbers were in the 500’s, but have since been brought down to about 150 in an attempt to better manage the herd.

Larina Cassidy (L) owner of Catalina Backcountry Tours and tour guide Pastor bring visitors into the island’s wild and hilly backcountry and its beautiful beaches (photo Ron Bernthal)

Catalina Island is privately owned. Chicago entrepreneur William Wrigley Jr. (yes, the chewing gum magnate) was able to purchase the entire island in 1919 during a bargain priced “fire sale” after Avalon, the island’s only town, burned to the ground during a fire four years earlier. Wrigley wanted to create a recreational paradise on his beautiful island and built a magnificent Art Deco waterfront casino in Avalon that opened in 1929, turning the small town into a famous destination that attracted Hollywood celebrities as well as one-million visitors each year, who arrived on the huge steamers Wrigley built to carry them over to Catalina from the nearby California coastal towns.

He even arranged for the Chicago Cubs, his hometown team. to play spring training games on Catalina every year from 1921-1941, and from 1946-51. The island was controlled by the U.S. military during the war years. Today, only a plaque noting the location of the Cubs’ training facility remains on the grounds of what is currently the Catalina Island Country Club, although its clubhouse is the same structure that Wrigley built for the Cubs in the 1920’s.

Avalon Harbor, c 1900 (photo courtesy California Historical Society)


Of course, one of the most popular attractions on Catalina, then and now, were the bison who wandered around the interior of the island without a care in the world. The present owners of Catalina Island, William Wrigley’s descendants, still have a strong passion for protecting endangered species, as well as Catalina’s fragile ecological terrain. In the 1970’s, as the island became an even more popular tourist and part-time residential destination, the family turned over 80 percent of the island into a conservation area managed by the Catalina Island Conservancy. The Wrigley family allowed the bison to stay on the island, and their presence continues to attract curious leisure travelers as well as ecology scholars, painters and photographers. Catalina is also home to 22 Sensitive Ecological Areas as well as 26 endemic plant species. The island hosts a variety of native subspecies such as the Catalina Orangetip Butterfly and the Island Fox. However, the introduction of a non-indigenous species like bison is almost always destructive to native species and the bison herd, with their massive grazing levels, are no exception.

Private home in Avalon (photo Ron Bernthal)

Presently, Catalina Island Conservancy officials, local biologists, tourism managers, and business owners are debating two different bison management plans.  Everyone agrees that the “tourism-friendly” plan would let the bison roam freely, and could support a total of 189 bison, but this plan can possibly damage more of the native ecosystem. The more “eco-friendly” approach would restrict bison movement to a small portion of the island, keeping them out of the Sensitive Ecological Areas, but would allow only 17 bison to live on Catalina. Not only would this much smaller bison population disappoint many visitors and history buffs, but the rapid removal of so many bison would make the island’s dry grass grow to levels not seen in decades, possibly resulting in more wildfires.

Morning view of wandering bison and Two Harbors from guest room screen window at Banning House Hotel. (photo Joanna Tricorache)

The 74 square-mile island has very few paved roads and 90 percent of its 4,096 residents live in the island’s one true town, Avalon, the commercial, tourism and transportation hub on the island’s southern end. Thus, the interior of the island is extremely lightly populated, with few structures.  Most visitors stay in the small hotels and BnB’s built close together along the narrow streets of sun-splashed Avalon harbor.  The Banning House Hotel (, one of the few properties outside Avalon, was constructed in 1910 by the Banning Brothers, early island pioneers, and is located on the northern side of the island, in an area called Two Harbors. Banning House is a casual, 12-room hotel overlooking the harbor, with visitors arriving by taxi along the unpaved road from Avalon (60-75 minutes), or via the year-round Catalina Express (, a fast and comfortable ferry service that operates from San Pedro, Long Beach or Dana Point, on the California coast, to Avalon or Two Harbors.  The trip takes about one hour, tickets can be reserved online. Another option for travelling between Avalon and Two Harbors is the Cyclone, a seasonal boat that operates daily from mid-May to end-September, weekends only during off-season.  

Catalina Express ferry arrives into Avalon Harbor (photo Catalina Express)

Believe it or not, this rural island with its bison, fox, scrub brush and cacti, scenic harbors, and isolated beaches, lies within Los Angeles County. The Catalina Island Conservancy restricts travel by car, even for residents. It is impossible for visitors to rent a passenger car on the island, and locals have to wait years for permission to bring a private automobile onto Catalina — many residents travel around by golf cart. Taxi’s can take visitors anywhere, but individuals or groups with bicycles, and campers and hikers on the Trans Catalina Trail will need to arrange backcountry visits with the tourism office or backcountry tour operators as the island’s system of roads and gates play a unique role in preserving the ecosystem of this private island.

The Santa Catalina Island Company ( maintain the strict environmental and preservation regulations because of the large amount of visitors who arrive into this fragile environment by ferry every day during the summer high season. There is also a small airport on the island, with a few scheduled air carriers flying in from Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. Private planes also make use of the airport, which is located at the highest point on the island, at an elevation of more than 1,600 feet, and has gained the nickname “Airport in the Sky”.