The image of bison evokes romanticised notions of the iconic American West. Efforts to reintroduce them to states like Idaho and Montana, despite coming across often fierce opposition from various groups and ranchers, have been largely successful. The American Prairie Reserve in Montana have managed to raise a herd of pure-bred bison (Bison bison) from an initial number of 16 in October 2005 to the 600 they have today, largely in part to extensive exposure in the media and as a consequence, enormous financial backing from private individuals and organisations. European bison (Bison bonasus) haven’t had it so easy.
European bison (otherwise known as Wisent or European wood bison) are now one of the most endangered large mammals in the world, even more so than celebrity species such as the black rhino, after they were hunted intensively from the last Ice Age until the last wild bison was killed in Caucasus in 1927. Habitat fragmentation, due to agriculture and urbanisation, have also played their part in this extinction.
The only reason they survived at all was due to 12 founder individuals that were kept in various zoos around Europe as zoological oddities, although historically their range included all lowlands of Europe reaching as far as southern Sweden to the Pyrenees to the Caucasus. Due to a lack of common knowledge about the animal, as well as a general reluctance to accept bison into wildlife areas, there have been no long-term plans for reintroduction until very recently. Conflict and political instability in certain areas of bison reintroduction have meant that any attempts at maintaining a stable, free-living herd have proved very difficult indeed, with many herds suffering heavy losses, even leading to local extinctions.
In 2008 the European Bison Conservation Centre (EBCC) was established with the sole purpose of preserving Europe’s largest native land herbivore (weighing between 800 and 1,100kg), an animal that has huge impacts on several of our most important ecosystems, often creating a patchwork, savannah-like landscape of grasslands. Since 2014, the EBCC has been working alongside the Rewilding Europe Network to create viable populations of these species in a number of areas around Europe.
A large success story has been Vanatori Neamt in Romania where this year’s calving season has increased the total number of bison in the region to 136, with a total of 18 new-born bison born around all European Rewilding Network areas this year.
The fate of the European bison is a classic example of how critically endangered species can be brought back from the brink through intensive, collaborative efforts by scientists and conservationists. Although the species still has a long way to go before they can be classified as stable, their future looks promising for the first time in thousands of years.