Santa Catalina Island Map
Credit: Created by me using a public domain aerial photo for the background.

Santa Catalina Island is only about 22 miles (35 km) off the coast of Los Angeles, California.

Beautiful island near Los Angeles has a bison herd

Just 22 miles (35 km) off the coast of Los Angeles, and easily visible on most days from the beaches of Los Angeles and Orange counties, is one of eight islands collectively called the Channel Islands. Five of those islands comprise Channel Islands National Park, and Santa Catalina Island is one of three not part of the national park.[1]

Over the years, I've been to Santa Catalina Island six times. I've been to their one incorporated city, beautiful Avalon, and also to other parts of the island, mostly the Two Harbors Isthmus.

Amongst other things this island is famous for, such as animals and plants only found there, incredible snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities, and wonderful places to hike and camp out, the island has a herd of American bison.[2] These animals are more commonly seen in the middle of North America, on the Great Plains.[3]

What are American bison doing on an island in Southern California?

Bison on Santa Catalina Island
Credit: Photo from Wikimedia Commons by tinyfroglet, CC BY 2.0.

Bison on Santa Catalina Island.

It's known that some bison were brought to the island in 1924, to be used in the filming of a movie. In those days, movies were not only black-and-white, they were silent. The film was a Western titled The Vanishing American, although the scenes with bison filmed on Santa Catalina Island never made it into the final cut of the film.[2]

The herd at one point grew to 600 individuals. At times bison have been taken and auctioned off on the mainland, and once 100 were taken to the Great Plains of South Dakota.[4][5]

Nowadays they give them birth control to keep the numbers from getting out of hand.[5] Although the owners of the island love the animals, too many will completely destroy the island ecosystem, since these animals are not native and, obviously being very large, they eat a lot.

About the American bison

Bison Artwork
Credit: Wikimedia Commons photo in the public domain.

Technically bison are not buffaloes, but practically everyone calls them buffaloes.[6] Real buffaloes live in Africa and Asia. African buffaloes are dangerous and have never been domesticated.[7] Water buffaloes are native to India and Southeast Asia, and have been domesticated for thousands of years.[8]

The Australian continent has many non-native wild water buffaloes, in a situation somewhat like what exists on Santa Catalina Island but on a much larger scale.[9] Australia is nearly the same exact size as the continental 48 states of the USA.

The American bison are part of the same family of animals as buffaloes, cattle, yaks, and a few other close relatives. In Europe there is an animal called the wisent, also know as the European bison, which closely resembles the American bison. They are the only two bison species on Earth (see the photo below).[6]

American bison are the largest land animals in North America. They typically weigh 1,000 to 2,000 lbs (450 to 900 kg), and the largest ever was 2,800 lbs (1,270 kg).[3] This is comparable to the very largest cattle breeds in the world.

They are very powerful animals, and can run between 35 and 40 mph (55 to 65 km per hour),[3] far faster than humans are capable of.

There used to be three other bison species in North America during the Pleistocene, but none of the three are known to have survived more recently than 9,000 years ago.[6] Amazingly, the American bison is thought to have once numbered in the tens of millions, although by 1890 the population, due to excessive hunting, dwindled to only 750 individuals. The species nearly went extinct.[3]

Heroic efforts to save them resulted in the numbers eventually rising to where they are now, at a few hundred thousand animals. There are unfortunately only a few places where bison herds roam free and wild like they used to before Europeans came to the continent.[3] I've seen one of the herds, in South Dakota.

The two bison species

Wisent, or European bison (left), and American bison (right).

The Two Bison Species
Credit: Photos are from Wikimedia Commons. Wisent photo by Anneli Salo, CC BY-SA 3.0. American bison photo by katsrcool, CC BY 2.0.

More about Santa Catalina Island

Two Harbors, Santa Catalina Island
Credit: Photo of Two Harbors is from Wikipedia by Weedwhacker128, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Two Harbors Isthmus has a general store, restrooms, restaurant, campground, and more. It's my favorite location on the island.

The bison on this island are every bit as potentially dangerous as bison anywhere else, and visitors, bicyclists, hikers, etc, are warned. My father has ridden his mountain bike through the interior of the island and seen the herd many times. Once he rode his bike right past a tree, where he suddenly noticed a very large male bison resting in the shade. Fortunately it didn’t care that he passed by.

I’ve seen a bison on Santa Catalina Island just once, on a hill near Two Harbors. Seeing them on an island near the beach is both interesting and amusing. I’d have seen them more if I’d ever gone to the interior of the island, but I have yet to do this.

The island overall is about 22 miles (30 km) long and eight miles (13 km) at its widest point.[2] The air is clean and clear, and it’s kind of gross to look over at the mainland and see the layer of brown smog from the Los Angeles area, especially if, like me, you know you live in that and breathe it all the time.

At night the view of the stars, if there aren’t clouds, is super spectacular. In the large cities the light pollution (and other forms of pollution) can make the star show so pathetic that a lot of the time, you can actually count how many stars are visible.[10] Southern Californians like me, who live in the big city areas, have to go to the islands off the coast, or high in the mountains, or out into the desert to see the stars properly.

The island has a native fox species only found there, a native rattlesnake only found there, and other native plants and animals.[2] I’ve seen one of the rattlesnakes, and I’ve seen the foxes numerous times when they come out at night and try to sneak around campgrounds.

Santa Catalina Island has a narrow point, an isthmus, which is only 2,500 feet (770 meters) wide. This is called Two Harbors, since there is a harbor on each side of the isthmus, one facing the mainland, and the other facing out into the vast Pacific Ocean.[11] The side facing the vast ocean had some boats and docks damaged from the massive earthquake near Japan, and the resulting tsunami, in March 2011.[12]

This makes an incredible place to visit in the summer, because the surrounding ocean guarantees that temperatures don’t get too horribly high.[2] Plus it’s a wonderful place to snorkel or, if you prefer and get properly certified, scuba dive. Others enjoy kayaking, plus as mentioned there is great hiking, mountain biking, and more. You couldn’t possibly get bored here, as there is more to do than could be accomplished in any vacation stay.

Beautiful Avalon Harbor, Santa Catalina Island, California

Avalon, Santa Catalina Island
Credit: From Wikipedia, by Aaron Logan, CC BY 1.0.

Avalon is the only incorporated city on the island, and has a population of less than 4,000. It is primarily a resort communiy designed to accommodate many tourists. Avalon and all of Santa Catalina Island are part of Los Angeles County.[13]