Like in North America, the bison in Europe were hunted to the very brink of extinction. As reintroduction efforts began in America during the late 1920s, the last few wild bison were being shot by hungry troops in Europe’s forests, so reintroduction efforts there are still in their infancy.
After decades of lackluster conservation efforts surrounding this species, Rewilding Europe has stepped in. Established in 2011 from the Netherlands, the foundation aims to bring real wilderness back to Europe, supporting and finding the conservation of wildlife, and the reclamation of abandoned farm land for natural habitats. With land abandonment becoming increasingly common in rural Europe as farming becomes less profitable and people are drawn to cities, opportunity is rising for conservation and restoration efforts to bring back not only iconic species, but also to introduce new sources of income to rejuvenate these regions. It’s the organization’s goal to “rewild” 100 million hectares (3,681 square miles) of Europe by 2022.
Frans Schepers, managing director of Rewilding Europe,said this about their work and bison. “The whole of Europe is changing; everything is changing. Socioeconomically, demographically, politically, you name it,” says Frans. “Nature has to also cope with those changes and remain relevant for European society. And it is relevant for European society, because it is our natural heritage and it is something we live on and depend on.”
But on a continent with far higher population density, where would newly wild European bison live?
“A lot of people don’t know about nature in Europe,” says Frans Schepers,. “People don’t know that we even have a European bison. And, in Europe, it is our largest land mammal. This is something maybe we could say to European conservation organizations; we’re not selling our story well enough.”
Rewilding Europe has launched an ambitious plan to get these animals back onto the landscape, with Romania becoming a showcase. On May 17, 2014, 17 bison were released into the wild there, becoming the first of their kind to roam these mountains in over 250 years. Over the next five-year period Rewilding Europe, along with WWF-Romania, plans to release a total of 100 bison into the southern Carpathian Mountains, creating what is hoped to be a viable and free roaming population. Last year, their efforts were vindicated as the European Commission gave its support for the project, providing critical funding for future releases, infrastructure, and work with local communities.
European bison, also known as “wisent,” are impressive creatures. Adult males can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and they stand taller than their American cousins at six feet and more at the shoulder. They are the largest terrestrial mammals in Europe. Bulls can eat up to 130 pounds of fresh food a day and the animals’ diet consists of over 200 different plants. The European bison and the American bison are close relatives, descending from a common ancestor that is thought to have evolved out of Central Asia.
Through their grazing behavior, bison can improve soil quality, spread seeds, open dense vegetation to sunlight, and when they die, release an abundance of nutrients back into the ecosystem. Wolves, bears, birds, and every other member of the forest and meadow community can potentially benefit from their existence on the landscape.
The past has not been kind to these great bovines. As human populations grew on the continent and development increased, European bison were increasingly pushed towards the edge of extinction. By the 19th century there were only two populations remaining in the wild: one in Poland and the other in the western Caucasus Mountains. With World War I pushed hungry troops deep into the forest, and with poaching being rampant, both were made extinct in the wild by 1927.
A handful survived as royal gifts that had been given away over time to zoos around Europe, with the ultimate number of remaining bison totaling just 54. These surviving few were entered into a breeding program, which began to increase the population while maintaining as much genetic diversity as possible; much of this work taking place behind the Iron Curtain. For a time, the Nazi party even adopted the bison as a powerful representation of the German Reich.
With the end of World War II and the close of the Cold War, a new era of international cooperation began. Today, information on each individual animal has since been documented through the European Bison Pedigree Book to help enhance breeding efforts. Currently there are more than 200 breeding centers around Europe and the current population stands at over 5,000 as well as being listed as Vulnerable under the IUCN Red List. Starting in the 1950s, reintroduction efforts began to slowly take shape with the largest wild population now living in the Białowieża Forest of Poland and Belarus.
With this success comes the challenge of bringing awareness to the general public on the wild that Europe has to offer. “How can you love something, or even vote for it, if you don’t know it exists? So the awareness about what Europe has to offer is priority number one,” Frans continues. “Rewilding is not going back to the past. We’re looking for wild nature in a modern, 21st century, Europe. There are huge opportunities and possibilities for that.”
In addition to assisting with efforts to reintroduce the bison, Rewilding Europe is also trying to create habitats and breeding programs for wild horses, and aims to “back breed” modern cattle to bring back the aurochs, the ancestor to all modern cattle.
May they have success in everything they do. Thank-you Rewilding Europe for all of your efforts to reclaim your ecology.
Happy Humpday (^_^)