Flames Latest Threat to Catalina's Wild Inhabitants
Santa Catalina Island has long been known as a lush, idyllic resort for Southern Californians seeking weekend refuge from the mainland, more than 20 miles away.
But most of the 76-square-mile island is home to a much wilder crowd — a rich array of fauna and flora. Island officials are worried about the threat to those species from the 4,000-acre wildfire that had displaced the island's human inhabitants Friday and had threatened the main city of Avalon.
"We are one of the biodiversity hot spots of the Channel Islands," says Bob Rhein, media director for the Catalina Island Conservancy.
Among the island's rare endemic – and endangered — species is the Catalina Island fox, a small, reddish-gray species found nowhere else on Earth. The fox was pushed to the brink of extinction in 1999, when a canine distemper outbreak killed all but 100 of the animals. Thanks to a breeding program, the population is back up to 500 foxes, scattered throughout the island.
With the fire burning swiftly in the island's steep canyons, Rhein says conservancy scientists are perhaps most worried about the fate of the foxes, which are outfitted with radio frequency collars. If a fox stops moving for more than 12 hours, the collar emits an alert signal. Once the fire is under control, Rhein says, conservancy biologists will fly over the island searching for signals from foxes.
"Then we'll have a better idea if any foxes fell prey to the fire. We'll know with a fair degree of certainty in a matter of weeks," Rhein says.
Other famous island fauna include a nesting population of "a little more than" 20 bald eagles, Rhein says. The eagles are native to the Channel Islands, but DDT contamination in the San Pedro Channel caused the birds to lay fragile, thin-shelled eggs that wouldn't hatch. The eagles were reintroduced to Catalina through a breeding program in 1980.
"At the end of March and beginning of April, four eggs hatched on their own — for the first time in more than 59 years," Rhein says. "That was a big deal."
None of the eagles' five nesting sites are endangered by the flames, Rhein says.
Roaming herds of bison are a well-known sight to islanders. But majestic as they may be, the bison aren't island natives; they were introduced from the Great Plains in 1924. Conservancy scientists are working to control herd populations because the large, hungry herbivores can overwhelm the island's resources.
As for Catalina's human inhabitants, they first arrived some 7,000 years ago, when archaeologists say Native Americans probably paddled over from the mainland. But the island didn't emerge as a destination for fun-seeking tourists until 1887, when George Shatto, an ambitious young businessman, purchased it. Shatto had big plans for Catalina, and he built Avalon and its first hotel — the Metropole — in a valley on the northeast side of the island.
Shatto divided the island into lots and encouraged newcomers to move in. But he proved to be a better visionary than accountant, and lost the land to mortgage woes. In 1892, the island was purchased by the Banning family. It added roads and telephones, encouraged steamship transportation to the island, and built up tourist attractions, including a golf course, an aquarium and a Greek amphitheater. In November 1915, fire swept through Avalon, destroying one-third of the town. The resulting financial losses forced the Bannings to sell their holdings in 1919 to William Wrigley Jr.
Wrigley and his family pushed development forward, adding a power plant and an improved sewer system, an exotic bird aviary, and the lavish, landmark Catalina Casino, complete with ballroom and theater, which opened in 1929.
Those efforts helped make Catalina a favorite playground of the rich and famous in the 1930s and '40s, when Hollywood luminaries including Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Betty Grable were frequent visitors. The island has had plenty of star turns of its own, serving as the location for more than 500 movies, documentaries, television shows and commercials in the past 90 years, according to the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce.
But Wrigley's descendants also wanted to maintain the island's wild character. In 1975, they donated 88 percent of the island to the nonprofit Catalina Island Conservancy, whose mission is to "preserve and restore Catalina to its natural state in perpetuity."
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