Category Archives: Catalina Island

Cactus Fruit and Fruit Liquor

From the Journal: 11/10/2011 (Catalina Island)

The Prickly-Pear cacti are blooming. Their Easter-yellow flowers exploding next to deviously sharp spines and the as-of-yet-untasted fruits. I’ve been told they’re somewhat like kiwi’s but I haven’t had the chutzpah to sink my teeth into one yet. I’m somewhat suspicious that – despite all evidence to the contrary – their delicious looking insides are in fact just as hideously prickly as their satanic outsides. I wonder if anyone’s made liquor out of them yet, someone must have, right?

Right on both counts, purportedly at least. I rarely have internet access while on project, so all these little questions, things that I would normally look up on my own, pile up unnoticed. According to the internet at least, the fruits of the Prickly-Pear cactus are as edible as they look (and aren’t full of spines, you’ll have to forgive my paranoia, I pulled a few too many spines out of my body to be trusting) and have been made into liquor by Mexican natives for a long time. Of course I’m now three-thousand miles away and probably won’t get a chance to try one for myself for awhile. I might have more luck finding a bottle.

On being an Omnivore. Bison Burgers.

From the Journal: 11/18/2011 (Catalina Island)

Bison, as it happens, make delicious burgers (What better way to make yourself feel better about being outwitted by an herbivore than to consume it). I think I was told there are some health and possibly environmental benefits to eating Bison over Cattle, but to be honest I couldn’t really hear over the sound of myself eating.

You look delicious

Ultimately unable to catch the last herd of females on the island, I took some solace in the fact that the elusive critters were at least highly edible. Bison are categorized oddly, they are capable of being designated as both wild animals and livestock, so Bison Ranching is in fact a real thing. However, due to their rather nasty dispositions and size, they aren’t really suitable for inclusion in a factory farm setting. If the implication that they are perhaps raised more sustainably than their mass-produced bovine cousins wasn’t enough to get you salivating (It was for me, but I’m admittedly weird), then consider this; Bison is reportedly naturally leaner than beef and tastes just as good (At the time I wrote the entry I’d probably have said better, but frustration makes the best seasoning). So if you’re watching your fat intake (Are you? Do we need to have a talk?) Bison might be a good choice over traditional beef.

The Catalina Bison Roundup (October to November 2011)

As I’ve mentioned, Catalina Island sports a fairly robust population of American Bison. Yes, THOSE American Bison, the ones that were nearly eradicated in the late 1800’s by wildly overzealous hunting. Normally native to the plains-states of the United States they have nevertheless made themselves quite at home on the rugged face of Catalina.

Introduced in the 1920’s for the filming of the not-exactly-classic movie “The Vanishing American.” After filming concluded fourteen individuals were left on the island due to budget constraints. With no natural predators and (if not abundant) sufficient food, the herd eventually swelled beyond its means.

Over time, Bison watching became a staple of the Catalina Island tourist experience. However, large grazing animals can devastate fragile grassland and sedge communities with ease and it eventually became clear that something needed to be done to control their burgeoning population. The current target Bison population for the island is (a somewhat arbitrary) ~150 individuals. A removal effort conducted several years ago achieved that number by relocating many of the females to the mainland (the bulls were deemed too large and aggressive to safely move) the resulting population is therefore heavily male-dominated a circumstance that benefits both tourists (everyone wants to see the bulls fighting during the rut) and the Conservancy (Reducing the number of females on the island greatly reduces the amount of work needed to carry out species management).

The current plan on the island is to administer a contraceptive (via dart-gun if necessary) to all viable females every year. The contraceptive in question reduces the ability of the target females eggs to interact with spermatozoa, thus making breeding impossible without the physiological effects of sterilization. The catch, of course, is that this requires all of the islands Bison to be rounded up every year for processing.

That was my job while on the island.

Broken down into simple steps, my days basically went like this.

  1. Arrive at work at Seven in the morning and feed the Bison we’ve already captured and penned. They weren’t, as a general rule, too happy about being stuck in the corals, getting out of the truck wasn’t a very good idea most of the time.

    ~20 Mostly Females, one calf.

  2. Once feeding is finished either head to the last known location of a herd or set out blindly in an attempt to find an unreported group.

    No Passing. For the love of god.

  3. IF we found a group half of us would stay with the trucks while the other half bailed out, grabbed backpacks, and attempted to herd the Bison in the direction of the pens using only strong language and thrown rocks. This worked about as well as you might expect it to. Bison are surprisingly quick, even on incredibly steep slopes, and could easily out distance us.

    They often had other plans on where they would be heading that day.

  4. IF we managed to get them back to the catch pens then everyone would get back in trucks and attempt to herd them manually into more secure locations. Again, this involved a lot of trial and error.

    We'll have to try again, but with more trucks.

  5. IF we didn’t manage to get them back to the catch pens (as was the case most days) we’d lay out a trail, Hansel and Gretel style, of alfalfa between where ever they were ignoring us from and the pens in the hopes of luring them closer before the next day.

    This didn't work particularly well, to be completely honest.

  6. IF we didn’t manage to find any on a given day we’d instead busy ourselves repairing the damage that the captive Bison were constantly inflicting upon the pens and hoping that tomorrow we’d have better luck.

All in all we managed to capture ~90 of the Bison roaming free on the island – that number including all but ~18 of the mature females – before our time ran out. Enough to call the whole operation a success, but not a particularly resounding one.

Especially since the last sizable herd of females managed to evade us with a newborn in tow.

~20 Mostly Females, one calf.

The Consequences of Malnourishment on Catalina

From the Journal: 10/26/2011 (Catalina Island)

Catalina’s Bison are reportedly undersized, though I can’t really see it, the Bulls weigh a mere 1900lbs, not even a full ton. Anecdotally, this is because the biological clocks of the extant population here are still synchronized with the much larger population on the mainland. Normally the rut takes place between July and August and the calves are born, after the nine and a half month gestation period, between April and May. This takes place in Catalina just like on the mainland. However there is one crucial difference. On the mainland the young are born into a world that is turning viciously green – sustained at first on the abundant milk of their mothers – by the time they are weaned there is still plenty of food to help them grow and develop. On Catalina the Bison are born into the dry season. Food is scarce and the calves, while hardly starving to death, often fail to thrive. Deprived of food early in life (and in fact nearly constantly thereafter), they never grow as big as their continental cousins.

This little guy is going to be enormous when he grows up, but maybe not as big as he could have been.

We managed to capture three of the four known calves on the island during our month there. The lone wild-child is especially enigmatic since it was still sporting its infant-coloration, indicating that it had been born very recently and therefore very much later than normal.

Catalina Island: Overview

The Valley of the Moons on Catalina

This past October I was employed on Catalina Island to help with the annual Bison (Bison bison) roundup. I’ll cover the roundup itself next, but first Catalina deserves the spotlight.

One of the eight Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, Catalina’s immediate neighbors are Santa Barbara Island and San Clemente Island.There are two major (relative to ghost towns) towns on Catalina Island: Avalon and Two Harbors. Avalon is located near the Southeast tip of the island, and it is where the majority of the island’s permanent residents reside. Its a tourist hotspot and a beautiful place to anchor, should you be of the sailing persuasion (As many of the part-time residents are). Two Harbors is located on a narrow strip of land (only half a mile across) near the center of the island. As the name suggests it boasts two (2) harbors, and is the location of the notorious (On the island at least) “Buccaneer Day,” an event I missed by just over a month, where residents and visitors alike dress up like pirates and drink heavily.

I’m actually pretty bummed I missed that. From the stories I heard its a fantastic time.


Most of the island is maintained by the Catalina Island Conservatory (CIC), which does a fantastic job protecting the island’s fragile ecosystems.

Among other things, Catalina boasts several endemic plant species as well as two populations of a species of endemic (and endangered) fox. The CIC wages constant war with a never-ending influx of invasive plant and animals species and does so while attempting to maintain cordial relations with the island’s opinionated human population.

Previously the CIC has come under fire for removing invasive feral pigs and goats from the island, and its current treatment of the Bison is also somewhat controversial. However, given that the island’s Bison are by no means a native species and should therefore logically be removed completely, the CIC’s current plan to simply control the population via yearly contraceptives represents an elegant compromise between their desire to protect the native flora and fauna on the island and the local economies dependence upon the Bison as a major draw for tourist dollars.

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