Europe Once Had Bison, and now They’re Making a Comeback

Just like their American cousins, the bison needed help after their numbers were decimated by habitat loss and hunting

European bison
European Bison (Bison bonasus) at Prioksko-Terrasnyy Reserve in Russia cultura/Corbis

The iconic bison of the American plains isn’t the only large hoofed beast humans have hunted to near extinction. Wild European bison, also called wisent, are returning to the lands they dominated in the Pleistocene, thanks to conservation efforts, reports Jeremy Hance for Mongabay

Poachers killed the last wild European bison (Bison bonasus) in 1927, leaving only a handful of the animals in zoos. Today, however, more than 5,000 bison living in Europe, including 2,300 free-ranging animals, Hance reports. Historically, the animals have ranged from France to far into Russia, from Scandinavia to perhaps as far south as Italy. 

Hunting and the clearing of land for farms brought the numbers of the mighty European bison low. The only way it survived was through captive herds. Twelve animals from Poland’s Białowieża Forest and one from the Causcuses wound up being the stock from which these modern European bison descended. After a decades of work and re-introductions, there are far more than thirteen of them. Hance writes:

Today, free-ranging European bison are found in nine countries, as far west as Germany and as far east as Russia. The largest population remains in Białowieża, which extends into Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park in Belarus.

The most recent country to welcome back the bison was Romania, where the species vanished in 1862. In 2012, conservationists released five animals into Vanatori Neamt Nature Park. Since then conservationists have released 22 more in the Eastern European country and they are breeding. 

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently moved the wisent from endangered to vulnerable but the animal still faces threats. The wisent is still more rare than the black rhino, Hance writes:

Rewilding Europe director [Wouter] Helmer pointed out that despite nearly a hundred years of conservation work there are still only a few big populations in the wild. He added that the top challenge "is to get enough self-sustainable different areas, different habitats, also to spread risks if a disease or other catastrophe appears." 

Because the bison population is now based on just a handful of individuals, diseases passed from cattle and a lack of genetic diversity are the biggest concerns. But if their habitat remains conserved, the bison may pull through. Just as tourists flock to Yellowstone and other national parks to see the remaining American bison, so too may ungulate appreciators in Europe. Also, Americans may also enjoy another bison subspecies — the wood bison — when it returns to historic ranges in Alaska and Canada.

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