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End of an era

By Steve Chawkins
Reporting from Santa Rosa Island, Calif.

For the family that once owned Santa Rosa Island, it was part Zane Grey, part “Robinson Crusoe.”

Generations of Vail cousins would arrive from the mainland and take refuge for months at a time. They would explore places with pirate-map names: Skull Gulch, Abalone Rocks, China Camp. They were city kids, but they rode with the island’s cowboys and knew the island lore — stories about ghosts, about shipwrecks, about a mythical temptress named Rita who supposedly awaited new cowboys.

For a senior project in high school, Nita Vail talked her teachers into letting her saddle up for a full season on Santa Rosa, spending weeks on end with the cowboys.

It was hard, but worthwhile.

“You’re in a sitting trot at dark-thirty in the morning and you’re riding 20, 30 miles,” Nita Vail recalled. The “gathers,” as they were called, weren’t over until all the cattle were herded onto custom-made ferries — the Vaqueros I and II — for the rough trip across the Santa Barbara Channel.
These days, when members of the venerable ranching family fly out to Santa Rosa Island, it isn’t to round up cattle. It’s to say goodbye.

The island became part of Channel Islands National Park in 1986, and the storied Vail & Vickers ranch — a spread that spanned the island’s 84 square miles of rolling grasslands and rugged coastline — shut down 12 years later. But the family continued to run a big-game operation, guiding hunters to the trophy deer and elk transplanted to the island nearly a century ago.

Under an agreement with the National Park Service and an environmental group, the sport hunting ended last month. Now, professional marksmen are tracking the remaining dozens of deer and elk from canyon to canyon, sometimes targeting them from helicopters.

The Vail & Vickers Co., a partnership formed by Arizona ranchers in 1889, will dissolve Dec. 31. Without land or cattle — or deer or elk — there’s nothing left to manage.

Once home to thriving Chumash villages, the island is all but unpopulated — a natural gem that only hints at its rich human history. In its day, the Vail & Vickers ranch was part of a California shaped by outsized personalities and powerful families, a state where palaces built by the likes of Hearst and Huntington have long since become public treasures.

But that doesn’t make the story’s ending any easier for the Vails.

“This is a sad time for us,” said Nita Vail, a great-granddaughter of the rancher who bought the island 26 miles off Santa Barbara in 1901. “We tried everything we could to keep the herds, but it didn’t work.”

Read Steve Chawkins’ story.


  1. November 30, 2011, 9:53 am

    What’s even more interesting about Santa Rosa Island is the geology. This island group has the same bluestone rocks that exist on the La Jolla (San Diego) coast. Go here to view animation of SoCal Breakup (tectonics):

    Geology Professor, Tanya Atwater, has done much of this work. The island group is far more interesting geologically than it’s recent cultural history.

    By: G. Mann
  2. November 30, 2011, 4:26 pm

    I’m glad of this, and am sure many other people are happy, too. I visited a few years ago only to find most of the island off-limits to visitors because of the hunting operation. The area we could visit was a sliver along the eastern shore. Thankfully, Ranger Mike (super friendly ranger going beyond expectations) took us and some other visitors on a guided hike in one of the canyons on the north side so we could expand our horizons a little.

    The Vail family can visit just like everyone else. Just not have it all to themselves.


    By: Eklandisk
  3. December 6, 2011, 7:45 am

    Very interesting in its parallels to Catalina. Conflicted about the potential for over zelaous "protection" to make the plants and animals the only ones who can really enjoy the resource.

  4. January 6, 2012, 11:44 am

    Maybe a subtle trespass of visitors throughout certain times of the year to allow the flora and fauna their natural eco space…time for breading and quiet abode. I imagine having a hunting operation was a bit jarring at times. I once spent a night on Anacapa Island with less than 10 people and hundreds of gulls, sea lions and other winged things. It was fantastic with minimal human footprint, the way it is intended I believe. Hope everyone does the right by the change.

    By: KLo

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