SANTA CATALINA ISLAND, Calif. -- After a life spent on a balmy Pacific island, 98 buffalo are being sent back to an authentic -- and frigid -- home on the range.
The buffalo began their journey Wednesday from Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California, to South Dakota, where they'll live on traditional rangelands of the Rosebud Lakota reservation.
The animals, some standing 5 feet at the shoulder and weighing several thousand pounds, are the descendants of an original herd of 14 brought from the prairie to appear in the 1920s silent movie, "The Vanishing American." Once the film was completed, the buffalo were simply left behind on the island.
"The idea was to get these buffalo that were taken from the plains some 80 years ago ... back to their homeland," said Maurice Lyons, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, which is paying the $75,000 cost to ship the animals.
"To the Native Americans back there, these animals are sacred," he said. "It was very moving. They'll be going home to their relatives."
After being lured into pens with hay, the buffalo were herded onto two, 18-wheel trucks and then taken by barge the 24 miles across the sea to Long Beach.
From there, it was on to the reservation more than a thousand miles inland, where the animals should arrive tonight.
In the past, the numbers of island buffalo were thinned by auctioning animals. But the conservancy's new management decided to try a different approach.
"This seemed like a solution where everybody would win," she said.
About 150 buffalo continue to inhabit the island, living off its sparse vegetation. A smaller heard also means less destruction of native plants.
The Lakota reservation already has buffalo, and the conservancy said there shouldn't be any problems with the newcomers acclimating, despite the fact that they'll be moving to a place with subzero winters.
As a test, the conservancy shipped some buffalo to the reservation last year.
"The minute they hit the ground, it was like their genetics kicked in and immediately they began growing a winter coat," Baer said.
The newcomers will have a lot more room to roam.
"They're going from 42,000 acres to 900,000," Baer said. "So they got a pretty good deal except for the snowy winters."