Bison on Birth Control
With great ardor, Bill Dyer, IDA’s Southern California Coordinator, has been fighting for the rights of one species or another every day of his life or so it seems. There have been the feral cats, dogs, goats, abused captive elephants, and whales, among so many others, and the American bison, specifically the ones on Catalina Island, 23 miles west off the coast of Los Angeles. In 2003, when the Catalina Island Conservancy, which controls more than 90 percent of the island, wanted to reduce the non-native bison population—the clock ticking infallibly—Bill, in one of the more thrilling rescues of his storied career, raised the funds to relocate 103 bison to three Native-American tribal lands in South Dakota, where they would live freely. Bill choreographed that inspired odyssey with Catalina resident Debbie Avellana, and the conservancy.
For several years IDA has been vigorously engaged in finding humane solutions to resolve the complex twin issues of animal overpopulation and of non-native species by promoting the replacement of lethal means of population control—typically used by city and governmental agencies—with non-lethal contraceptive programs. In 1994, IDA blocked a plan that would have allowed the bow hunting of Tule Elk at Pt. Reyes National Seashore, in Northern California, and, instead, triumphantly instituted a contraceptive operation. After IDA’s discussions with the conservancy about the inestimable benefits of contraception over relocation of the bison, the day finally arrived in the form of a high-tech miracle that IDA enthusiastically champions: partnering with the Catalina Island Conservancy’s contraception program that would no longer require the bison to be killed or experience the profound stress of relocation from their present habitat. IDA is contributing to the five-year, $200,000 plan, where females older than two years are injected with an annual immune-contraceptive vaccine that works by creating antibodies that attach themselves onto eggs, blocking fertilization, marking the first application of the vaccine on a wild bison herd.
“We want the animals to be free,” says Bill, but considering the conservancy’s resolve to reduce the herd’s numbers, contraception “is the next best thing.”
Carlos De la Rosa, the conservancy’s chief conservation and education officer, says most of the females already are pregnant, but that the inoculation won’t cause any harm to them or their babies. And it won’t create changes in their behavior with their male admirers because it is not a hormonal vaccine. “It’s kind of like love without consequences,” de la Rosa says. The process can be reversed by not administering the shot to certain bison in subsequent years, which means reproduction is still an opportunity.
The permanent residents as well as the eco-tourists on the dreamlike island are subject to preternatural delight when alighting upon the thick-furred, shaggy species. Some islanders missed them so much when they were shipped to South Dakota that they traveled to see them. Avalon’s Debbie Avellana, who staunchly resisted earlier efforts to rid the island of non-native goats and pigs, first suggested the use of contraception on the bison. “I’m so happy. Our bison don’t have to be shipped out or killed,” she says, “and they will have more to eat.”
The goal of the program is to decrease the herd to a healthier, less environmentally damaging 150 to 200 bison, a number that is manageable for the conservancy as it seeks to protect the island’s sensitive ecosystems while ensuring the health of its buffalo herd. “We really are trying to find that balance between protection of the environment, restoration of the environment, and the social and cultural values we believe are so important to our lives,” says Ann Muscat, the conservancy’s president and chief executive officer. “And keeping the bison here is something our board found is important to the community.”
Bill Dyer says the birth control plan has advantages over corralling the bison for a ride to the mainland. “The expense of it, and the stress it puts on them,” he said, “all of that is over now.”
If there is a belief that pulses throughout IDA and its passionate membership, it is that the bison deserve to be protected on their “dream space,” as Saul Bellow once called it, from the consequences of bad politics.