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Rolling up sleeves for major bison rewilding

September 21, 2012

On September 10, Rewilding Europe took off with the Bison Rewilding Action Plan, an important step for the restoration of bison in Europe.

The European bison (Bison bonasus), also called the wisent, is the largest and one of the rarest land mammals in Europe. The bison once roamed in millions, from Spain all the way to the Ural Mountains and the Caucasus, and as far north as Sweden. It had an important role in the formation of the prehistoric European broad-leaved and forested steppe ecosystems.

However, by the end of the 19th century, there were only two populations of European bison left in the wild: in Bialowieza Forest (B.b bonasus) and in the West-Caucasus Mountains (B.b.caucasicus). The last European bison in Bialowieza forest died in 1919 and the last bison in the wild in Europe died in the Caucasus in 1927.

Reintroductions of European bison to forest ecosystems started in Bialowieza in 1952. Since then, Poland has played a major role in the restoration of the bison. Despite 60 years of efforts, the population has grown only to about 2,000 animals in the wild, a number far too low to be in the safety zone. The species is still vulnerable according to IUCN red list. There are less bison in the wild in Europe than black rhino’s in Africa.

A population of at least 100 individuals could be counted as demographically safe. In 1990 there were 6 such herds, in 2012 only 3 such herds remain (2 in Poland and 1 in Belorussia). All three are managed by man and not allowed to interact naturally within the environment they live in.

Help for the bison is therefore badly needed. Rewilding Europe will offer the bison its unique and natural role in European wilderness and wild lands, where the bison will be allowed to be an integrated part of the ecosystem according to the natural carrying capacity. This is a new and unique step in bison conservation in Europe.

The bison is a keystone species with a unique niche in the ecosystems. The species is not only important because of its specific grazing and browsing behavior – by rolling, scraping and manuring it also creates microhabitats for many flora and fauna species. In this respect the bison cannot be replaced by any other large herbivore. Because of its size and beauty the bison will function as a major flagship species that symbolizes the rewilding of Europe.

Rewilding Europe aims at establishing new populations of bison in two of the five rewilding areas; in the Eastern Carpathians the bison already lives in a estimated number of 260 animals, divided into several smaller herds. In future, large herds of bison will shape the landscape in these rewilding areas, creating diverse natural grasslands and woodlands, attracting many other plants and animals, including carnivores likes wolves and scavengers like vultures, and, last but not least – many visitors to enjoy all this.

The Bison Rewilding Action Plan has been made possible by a grant of the Swedish Postcode Lottery.

Joep van de Vlasakker, who has a lot of experience with bison work all over Europe, is responsible for the Bison Rewilding Action Plan, and supporting the local teams with preparing and reintroducing bison into their areas.

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