Abstract The Pacific islands off southern California, U.S.A. and Baja California, Mexico hold potential for the conservation and restoration of California Mediterranean coastal ecosystems. However, the presence of exotic herbivores and invasive plants pose threats to these systems. Here, we use introduced herbivore removal as a large-scale experimental manipulation to examine the importance of top-down and bottom-up processes to a large-scale restoration effort. Using a paired approach on the Todos Santos Islands, Mexico we removed herbivores from one island, while they temporarily remained on an adjacent and similar island. We augmented this experiment with smaller scale herbivore exclosures on the control island. At both scales we failed to detect an herbivore effect on the plant community; rather plant community dynamics appeared to be dominated by El Niño related precipitation and exotic annuals. A parallel experiment on the San Benito Islands, Mexico revealed a different dynamic: Top-down effects on the plant community by exotic herbivores were evident. Differences in the response from the plant communities to both exotic herbivore presence and removal between these two island groups, along with Santa Barbara Island, U.S.A., where restoration has been on-going, raise important questions in ecosystem restoration. The history of anthropogenic disturbance, exotic plant abundance, and aridity play roles in postherbivore removal recovery. Although island conservation practitioners have honed the ability to remove exotic mammals from islands, development of invasive plant removal techniques is needed to fully capitalize on the conservation potential of California island ecosystems.