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Bringing back the European bison


text and photographs by Mihai Stoica *

As the great beasts – Europe’s largest land mammals – were timidly trotting off their metallic confinements, another species – the human, Europe’s most wide spread mammal – was gazing curiously from behind the wooden barrier of an enclosure meant for its protection.

Rewilding Europe in partnership with WWF-Romania released 17 European bison (bison bonasus) in a wildlife reserve in the Southern Carpathians. The bison were gathered from wildlife parks and breeding centers from five countries and were driven across Europe in what was one of the biggest releases since reintroductions began more than half a century ago.

This ironic reversal of roles, albeit temporary, might have awoken some of the people present at the event to the importance of conservation in a world where humans take up more and more space for their activities, a process that leads to the fragmentation and narrowing of wildlife habitat. The larger story of the reintroduction of the European bison into the wild – a large herbivore that needs lots of space – brings us back to that old conservation conundrum: making habitat available and the politics around it.

An uncertain future

The European bison became extinct in the wild after the last beast was poached in the western Caucasus in 1927, following decades of excessive hunting and habitat loss due to land conversions. 54 of them survived in European zoos. Repopulation programs began in the 1950s and nowadays there are around 5000 bison, of which about 3200 occur in free-ranging herds scattered across Central and Eastern Europe.

While population numbers have grown considerably, the species faces an uncertain future due to what conservationists call a genetic bottleneck – only 12 founders – resulting in low genetic diversity. This means that, for example, entire populations could be wiped out by transmitted diseases. Studies show that the minimum viable size of a bison herd needs to be around 1000 individuals, a number that researchers say would ensure genetic diversity. So far, all existing herds remain fairly small and isolated and no protected area is large enough to harbour a viable bison population. This raises the question of where these populations could exist.

According to a 2011 study by the Ecological Society of America, the most suitable habitats for the European bison are in Eastern Europe where there is relatively low conflict potential with land use. Still, these are found outside protected areas, where livestock husbandry and small-scale farming represent major challenges for recovering bison populations. The same study also finds that several areas with great potential for the reintroduction of the bison occur in border regions, such as in between Ukraine and Belarus or in the Carpathians.

Although Rewilding Europe and WWF-Romania are aiming at a population of 500 in the southern Carpathians, it seems that the greater effort for these organizations in bringing back the European bison lies in ensuring broadscale, trans-boundary conservation planning. The study concludes that the Natura 2000 Framework, whose purpose is to integrate nature conservation and land-use, and which regards the bison as a focal species, could be a useful tool for such cross-boundary conservation planning.

As more bison will be released in the Carpathians during the coming years, making suitable habitats available becomes a crucial challenge in ensuring their long-term survival and restoration of their ecological roles in human-dominated landscapes.

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