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Return of the Little Buffalo

American  bison once roamed the prairies in numbers so large it was said that a man could walk on the backs of the buffalo from horizon to horizon. The Lakota, the northernmost division of the Great Sioux Nation, refer to the animals as Ta-Tanka. Lakota and other Native
American tribes killed only what they could eat and used all parts of the animal for food, clothing, shelter, and a safe release into the spiritual world, giving thanks to the animal for sacrificing its life for the lives of their families. In spite of these early conservation efforts, during the days of the American Old West the bison came close to extinction.


The U.S. Government recognized that Native American Indians depended on buffalo for survival and hired buffalo hunters to slaughter the bison, eliminating the food source so the government could dominate and control the people of the plains tribes. The railroads were also involved in the slaughter, offering “Buffalo Shoot” vacations and buffalo shooting contests for tourists. Buffalo Bill Cody once bragged that he personally slaughtered more than 4,000
bison in two years. In the early 1870s, thousands of buffalo hides were sent back east by train each year. During the winter of 1872 over 1.5 million buffalo hides were transported by train, and railroad towns had mountainous piles of buffalo bones.

Historical estimates show as many as 60 million bison once ranged from the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains to the east coast of North America with the majority of herds living on the prairies. Current estimates show there are approximately 300,000 surviving American bison living on various reservations in the United States. Many of these have bovine genes, but intermingling with cattle herds is considered typical buffalo behavior.

For instance, a study of the Catalina Island bison shows that 45% have a domestic cow in their family tree, but the animals were never managed for purity, according to the Catalina Island Conservancy, they were monitored for the health and welfare of the herd and the environment. In fact, genetic studies indicate that some of the Catalina bison came from herds owned by American Cattle King Charles Goodnight who experimented with breeding bison with Angus cattle at his Palo Duro Canyon ranch in the Texas Panhandle. He called these animals “cattalo.”

buff1How the American bison appeared on an island off the coast of California, however, is a mystery. According to Jim Watson, in an August 26, 2011 column for the Catalina Islander, an article in the December 24, 1924 issue of that same newspaper reported 14 buffalo were released on the island for the filming of The Vanishing American, a Western based on the novel by Zane Grey. The release of the novel and film created tremendous controversy as it portrays the struggle of the Navajo to preserve their culture and language, defying the U.S. government’s enforced re-education. However, there are no scenes that show buffalo in the film.

Watson admits in his column that the scenes could have been cut from the film, but he also found more conflicting evidence in his research–a brochure from the Los Angeles Public Library stating that 13 buffalo were transported to the island by a Catalina ranch foreman after the filming of the 1923 Western, The Covered Wagon. Regardless of how and why they arrived, their appearance on the island soon created numerous problems for the buffalo. Catalina Island is 22 miles long, 8 miles wide, and rocky, contrasting sharply with the vast
prairie environment so familiar to American bison.

It is believed that American bison arrived in North America around the same time humans crossed the land bridge that once connected Siberia to Alaska. The American bison’s ancestors weighed an estimated 5,000 pounds with horns six feet across. They quickly adjusted to the rich grasslands of the American prairies, though they gradually reduced in body size. The average American bison now weighs 2000 pounds is 12 feet long and six feet tall at the shoulder hump,which serves as a storehouse of nutritious fats for the animal, but the Catalina Island bison are one third smaller than their mainland cousins.

According to Leslie Baer, a member of the Catalina Island Conservancy Executive Committee, the difference in size between Catalina bison and mainland bison is not due to mistreatment of any kind. Baer explained that there has always been careful management of the bison herd on the island and a continuous introduction of mainland bison to prevent inbreeding. According to Baer, the Catalina Island buffalo are smaller due to the timing of the bison’s reproduction cycle and the seasons on the island.


When the mainland buffalo calves are born the prairie grass is at its nutritional peak,  but Catalina has a Mediterranean island environment, and when Catalina bison calves are born the grasses are already drying up. Nevertheless, the Catalina bison were quite happy to populate the island with their offspring and their tiny herd grew from 14 to more than 600 over a 70 year period. Unfortunately, Catalina Island also has 50 plants and animals found nowhere else in the world and a herd of 2000 pound bison thundering across the landscape could cause tremendous damage.

In 2004, the Catalina Island Conservancy decided to send 100 of the Catalina buffalo to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota with the agreement that the reservation would keep the Little Buffalo safe and protected. The return of the buffalo was viewed by tribal Elders as the fulfillment of a prophecy made by Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse (1840-1877) who told his people shortly before his death that the return of the Little Buffalo would introduce an era of prosperity and revitalization for the tribe.

Leslie Baer of the Catalina Island Conservancy was part of the original group who arranged the return of the Little Buffalo. This exchange involved the collaboration and contributions from the Catalina Island Conservancy, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, the Tongva Tribe of Southern California, In Defense of Animals and the Rosebud Indian Reservation. The bison were transported by barge and truck at a cost of $75,000.


“We invited Grandpa Roy Stone and John Redbird from the Rosebud Indian Reservation to oversee the transfer of the bison,” Baer explained. “We wanted to make sure we did everything the right way, the good way. Grandpa Roy found a sacred place for a
ceremony and they prayed over the bison to make sure this was the right thing for them. We now have a plaque where the original ceremony was held and the original sweat lodge is there, as well.”

Wayne Frederick is currently the Buffalo Coordinator for the Rosebud Indian Reservation. His family are members of the Sicangu-Lakota, or “Burnt Thigh Nation,” and he has managed his family’s 107 year old ranch for 22 years. Frederick started working with the buffalo project 10 years ago, following in the footsteps of his father, Tom Frederick, a rancher and police officer who became Director of the Game, Fish and Parks Department in 1980.

“My father believed that the buffalo and elk needed to be returned to the people,” Wayne Frederick explained. According to Lakota belief, the universe is a never-ending circle and humans are viewed as another animal. Therefore the buffalo are considered brothers, respected family members deserving of respect and care. “In our creation story we were told that we and the buffalo are one, and without each other we will cease to exist,” Frederick said.

“My father wrote enough letters to finally inspire others to reintroduce these animals to the area, then he established a wildlife reserve on the reservation to protect the animals,” Frederick continued. “He believed it was imperative that the buffalo should return to the reservation for many cultural, spiritual, and community reasons.” On the reservation, buffalo meat is consumed at spiritual gatherings, wakes, and funerals. “Buffalo meat is necessary
for the honorary pot of soup that we all eat, to help send our loved ones to their next journey,” Frederick said.

Tom Frederick worked with Sinte Gleska University President Lionel Bordeaux and James “Scotty” Philip, founder of the town of Philip, South Dakota, to reintroduce the buffalo to the Rosebud Indian Reservation. This first buffalo herd was a combined herd from Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, and private individuals. When the Little Buffalo arrived from Catalina Island there was already a good-sized herd of buffalo on the reservation.

Wayne Frederick continues to work closely with the Catalina buffalo herd. “The Catalina bison were allowed to intermingle with the reservation herd and produce offspring,” Frederick said. “Some of the meat from their offspring is used in spiritual ceremonies, but most of the offspring remain protected on the reservation.”

Following the return of the Little Buffalo to the Rosebud Indian Reservation the Catalina Island Conservancy continued to struggle with the remaining bison. According to a Catalina Island Conservancy Press Release, “personnel took away their romantic, candle-lit dinners. Then, they offered them condoms – but the bison refused to cooperate.” The press release was designed to attract media attention to a ground-breaking experiment in birth control.

buff4Controlling native versus non-native animal populations is currently a hot issue. According
to Wayne Frederick, there are many ways the island could be protected from damage by the buffalo, including returning the remaining bison to the mainland prairies, but removing all of the bison from the island was never an option to the people of Catalina. The bison are considered a part of the fabric of Catalina Island’s history and culture. There are statues of the bison in various places throughout the Island and the bison are also popular with tourists.

Catalina Island resident and animal activist Debbie Avellana suggested the birth control for the bison. However, when she first made the suggestion of the Porcine Zona Pellucida vaccine, which is made from pig eggs, it was prohibitively expensive and previously untested on bison. Following the return of the buffalo to the Rosebud Indian Reservation, the birth control method was proposed again. In the few years that had passed, PZP was successfully tested on captive female bison in 11 American zoos and on wild horse populations, but it was still untested on a free-range herd like the Catalina bison. Nevertheless, the Conservancy decided to give it a try.

The PZP injection is believed to be harmless and reversible. The vaccine is injected into the muscles of female bison who are two years or older, stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies against the vaccine. The antibodies then attach themselves to sperm receptors on the bison’s eggs causing their walls to thicken, blocking fertilization.

Julie King, Senior Wildlife Biologist for the Catalina Island Conservancy, and fellow wildlife biologist Calvin Duncan contacted Dr. Jay Kirkpatrick, Director of Zoo Montana’s Science and Conservation Center, an expert on the use of PZP. They devised a five-year plan using PZP to stabilize the Catalina’s bison population then Kirkpatrick taught Duncan and Conservancy biologist Kevin Ryan how to administer the vaccine. The plan was launched on November 20, 2009 with an estimated cost of $200,000.

In 2010 the conservancy counted 29 baby bison in the herd. In 2011, there were three. The goal, which is based on environmental impact studies, is to keep the herd at 100 to150 bison, encouraging some growth to offset mortality rates. As the Catalina Island Conservancy explained in a 2011 press release, the goal is not to find zero calves, but zero growth.

Meanwhile, the Sicangu-Lakota continue to follow the example of their ancestors by respecting and protecting the buffalo on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. They also are as protecting the offspring of the Little Buffalo, the Catalina bison herd that fulfilled the prophecy of the Oglala Lakota leader, Crazy Horse. As Wayne Frederick explained, “The offspring of the Catalina Island buffalo are alive and well and their existence will always be here.”


This article was courtesy of Darla Dollman, for more stories by her please visit her site at http://wildwesthistory.blogspot.com/