Wenceslaus, 911-935, left bison alone. Successors alternately hunted & protected them.
BIALOWIEZA FOREST, Poland––European wood bison, also called wisent, at risk of extinction for far longer than their North American cousins, are no longer “vulnerable,” and have accordingly been removed from the “Red List” maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
The century-long recovery of European wood bison from one small Polish herd demonstrates that large land-dwelling wildlife with huge habitat needs can co-exist with humans, where humans are willing to make room for them, even in regions from which the species have been extirpated centuries and even millennia before.
That bodes well for elephants, rhinos, and gorillas, among other species suffering now from habitat encroachment and poaching in other parts of the world.
6,200 bison in 47 herds
About 6,200 European wood bison now live in 47 free-ranging herds scattered in protected habitat in at least eleven nations, including Poland, the Netherlands, Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Spain.
A new herd, including a male and three females, is to be introduced at Wilder Blean, in the Blean Woods of Kent, England, in 2022, mingling bison from Dutch and Polish herds to restore the species to England after an absence of about 6,000 years.
To prevent inbreeding, animals from most of the existing bison herds are transferred among the others. Only eight of the current herds are believed to be genetically diverse enough to survive without transfers.
There are, however, more European wood bison herds now than there were individual European wood bison left alive when the organized conservation efforts continuing today first began, at almost the same time that similar efforts saved the North American bison.
Racist Madison Grant saved North American bison
North American bison survive in large part through the efforts of the arch-racist and proto-conservationist Madison Grant (1865-1937).
Grant took up the cause after twenty years of sporadic appeals from the American Humane Association, founded in 1877, had roused some polite concern about the loss of bison from the Great Plains but had not brought much tangible action to save them.
Recounted Jonathan Spiro in Defending the Master Race – Conservation, Eugenics, Madison Grant (2008), “Some wealthy individuals had attempted to preserve captive herds on their private estates, but most had allowed their bison to breed with cattle.”
Arguing that “It is of the utmost importance to preserve all remnants of the American bison without any cross-breeding,” Grant prevailed upon Boone & Crockett Club colleague Theodore Rooosevelt, by then U.S. President, to designate the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge as the first North American bison reserve on June 2, 1905.
Began Bronx Zoo breeding program
This, on land taken from the newly created U.S. Forest Service, was the beginning of the U.S. National Wildlife Refuge system.
Having founded the Bronx Zoo in 1895, Grant also encouraged zoo director William Temple Hornaday to obtain bison, in 1901, and to send six bison bulls and nine cows from the Bronx Zoo herd to populate the newly created Wichita Mountains refuge.
When Grant and Hornaday began, “there were only some 500 pure-blooded bison in the United States,” wrote Spiro. “By Grant’s death there were well over 25,000. The number today is more than 250,000.”
Wisent conservation began circa 1386
Haphazard conservation of European wood bison began in the Białowieża Forest of northern Poland, a region about two-thirds of the size of Yellowstone National Park, soon after Wladyslaw II Jagietto became King of Poland in 1386.
Ruling until his death in 1434, King Jagietto built the white wooden hunting manor, literally a white tower, for which the Białowieża Forest was named. [Białowieża means “white tower” in Polish.]
More than a century later, with European wood bison already visibly scarce more than a hundred years before the Spanish introduction of horses and firearms to North America began the decline of North American bison, King Jagietto’s successors in 1541 declared the Białowieża Forest to be a royal hunting reserve, specifically to protect bison from all but royal depredations.
The Russian Tsar Paul I abolished protection of the Białowieża Forest after forcibly annexing the region in 1772. Hunters depleted the Białowieża bison from more than 500 to fewer than 200 before tsar Alexander I re-instituted governmental protection in 1801.
Foresters tried to overthrow the Tsar
During the next 30 years the bison herd increased to about 700, but again collapsed after 500 of the 502 foresters hired to protect the bison and their habitat joined the failed November Uprising of 1830-1831, which led to the abolition of their jobs.
Tsar Alexander II re-established bison protection in 1860. The Białowieża Forest thereafter remained––officially––a royal hunting preserve until the Russian monarchy was finally overthrown and massacred in 1917.
The tsars gifted European wood bison to zoos in several European capitals, which helped to save the species after the German troops who occupied the Białowieża Forest from August 1915 to February 1919 entirely annihilated the Białowieża Forest bison population. Laying 124 miles of railway to facilitate mining within the forest area, the German troops also depleted the Białowieża Forest habitat.
A global survey of zoos in 1923 found just 54 European wood bison, including a small herd at the Bronx Zoo, imported circa 1905.
Restoration began with just four
Four European wood bison were reintroduced to the Białowieża Forest in 1929.
Two were descended from a pair gifted to the Duke of Pszczyna by Tsar Alexander II in 1865. The other two were descended from Kaukasus, one of the last wild wood bison seen alive in the Western Caucasus region of Russia, where bison were officially extinct by 1927.
Born in the Caucasus Mountains in 1907, Kaukasas was sent to Germany in 1908, the only Western Caucasian bull ever known to have been kept in captivity. Before Kaukasas died, on February 26, 1925, he sired several offspring with European wood bison cows.
The Białowieża Forest became Białowieża National Park, the present name of the protected portion of the habitat, in 1932.
By 1939 the bison herd had quadrupled to 16, and the reintroduction experiment was declared a success. The outbreak of World War II, however, made the forest a hideout for the Polish and Russian guerrilla resistance to Nazi invaders, and a frequent scene of retaliatory executions and massacres by the Nazis, from July 1941 until the Red Army arrived in July 1944.
At least some bison survived the fighting, perhaps partially due to the hope of Nazi leader Hermann Göring that the Białowieża Forest might become his private hunting reserve. In retreat, the Wehrmacht destroyed what remained of the tzarist hunting facilities, including the white tower.
Post-World War II, the forest was divided between Poland and Belarus, then a part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, but an independent nation since July 1990.
As much of the Białowieża Forest was considered unsafe due to the presence of minefields and other unexploded ordinance, the bison and other wildlife thrived, mostly undisturbed, throughout the rest of the 20th century.
Tourism & logging helped herd to grow
Post-1990, the Polish side of the Białowieża Forest was gradually opened to eco-tourism, with the last European wood bison as the star attractions, much more visible than the resident wolves and brown bears, who are smaller cousins of the North American grizzly bear.
Much of the Polish part of the Białowieża Forest was controversially logged in 2017-2018, officially because infection by spruce bark beetles had killed nearly half the trees, creating a wildfire hazard.
Birdlife International, Greenpeace Poland, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, & Cultural Organization won a 2018 ruling from the European Court of Justice that logging violated international law, in part because it potentially jeopardizes species who are dependent upon old growth habitat.
However, by opening up meadows, the logging benefited the Białowieża Forest bison herd, now standing at 481 individuals on the Polish side, the most in two centuries.
Bison themselves clear habitat
Another 40 bison are kept at a captive breeding facility on the Polish side of the forest, while an estimated 430 to 450 bison roam the Belarusian portion.
The preference of European wood bison for meadow habitat––and their tendency to create it, where they find unhealthy dense old growth––is among the reasons behind the scheduled bison reintroduction to Britain.
Explained Andy Corbley for the Good News Network on December 11, 2020, “The constant foraging, digging, scuffing, and breaking bison do on the forest floor has been hypothesized as having tremendous revitalizing effects on the ecosystem.
“Bison kill weak or dead trees by eating their bark or rubbing against them to remove their thick winter fur,” Corbley continued. “This turns the trees into food and habitat for insects, which in turn provide food for birds. The resulting pocket of sunlight allows new plants to grow, replenishing the woodland.”
The Białowieża Forest bison herd has already become the seed population for other reintroductions , from the Western Caucasus mountains to Spain.
The Russian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund claims to have established three distinctive Caucasian bison herds, totaling 143 members.
Bison from the Białowieża Forest have reportedly been transferred in small groups to breeding facilities in the Czech Republic for nearly 30 years.
“Up to now, the animal dubbed ‘Zubr’ in Czech had only survived in the names of villages such as Zubri et Zubrnice, as well as in the names of popular drinks, the Zubr beer and Zubrovka vodka,” wrote Jan Marchal for Agence France-Presse in August 2011.
Back in Bohemia
The first release to the wild in the Czech Republic came on April 10, 2012 at the Zidlov Game Preserve on the 98-square-mile former Ralsko military training base, 50 miles north of Prague.
This is literally in the heart of the territory ruled briefly by Wenceslaus I, one of the first Christian dukes of Bohemia, who posthumously became the “Good King Wenceslaus” memorialized in song since at least 1582.
“The vast training zone, created after World War II at the expense of the merciless destruction of 16 villages, was confiscated, pure and simple, by the Red Army after its occupation of former Czechoslovakia in 1968,” Marchal said.
“The Soviets only left two years after the 1989 Velvet Revolution that toppled communist rule in Czechoslovakia, which split peacefully into two countries in 1993.”
Kahunka, Kartinka, Karvina, Kasztelanka & Kampinos
The first bison in north Bohemia since the early 19th century were four bison cows from Białowieża, named Kahunka, Kartinka, Karvina and Kasztelanka, and a bull called Kampinos, brought from Kampinos National Park in Poland, where bison from Białowieża were reintroduced decades earlier.
Such restorations have often come with complications.
Among the first successful reintroductions of bison to their former wild habitat was the 1963 transfer of nine bison from the Białowieża Forest to a mountainous region near the village of Stuposiany in the Bieszczady mountains, about 300 miles south of Białowieża.
The translocated herd gradually bred up to 270 bison. But bovine tuberculosis spread into the bison from domestic cattle in 1997.
Eighteen bison believed to have been exposed were killed to prevent infection in others, but a female bison was found dead from bovine tuberculosis in early 2010, and two more from her herd died in early 2012. All 25 surviving members of the herd were then killed. If any more bison have been infected, word of it has not reached the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases [ProMED].
Bison restoration to Spain, after an absence of approximately 1,000 years, began with the June 2010 release of two bulls and five cows from the Białowieża Forest into the mountains near San Cebrian de Muda, about 70 miles south of the Altamira caves, where 36,000-year-old paintings of European wood bison and many other animals were discovered in 1880.
The first birth among the newly reintroduced herd came two months later.
A second reintroduction, of 12 male bison brought from captive herds in the Netherlands, Ireland, and Britain, occurred in stages between June 2015 and June 2016 at the Valdeserrillas Reserve, across the Spanish peninsula, near Los Serranos in Valencia province.
That effort came to grief in September 2016, when project manager Carlos Alamo reported that two bison had been poached and beheaded, while several others appeared to have been poisoned.
Manager got eight months
Alamo eventually plea-bargained an eight-month jail sentence for having allowed the bison to starve to death and then concocting stories to cover for his own negligence.
Two more bison from the all-male herd meanwhile killed each other. Heavy rains and flooding then destroyed most of the Valdeserrillas Reserve fencing and other facilities in January 2017.
On April 27, 2017 the surviving four European wood bison and five water buffalo were relocated to the newly designated Ancilles Wildlife Reserve, under development by the True Nature Foundation near the village of Riaño, Leon province, in the Cantabrian Mountains. Near Picos de Europa National Park, this site is about 80 miles from the Altamira caves.
Hybridized with aurochs
As the Spanish disaster was evolving, research led by the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide discovered in 2016 that Ice Age steppe bison, hybridized with aurochs, the quasi-extinct ancestors of modern cattle, circa 120,000 years ago.
The last wild aurochs were poached in the Jaktorów Forest of Poland in 1627, ending more than 60 years of royal conservation efforts parallel to the efforts to conserve European wood bison. Brothers Heinz and Lutz Heck, however, who directed zoos in Berlin and Munich, in the 1920s began back-breeding cattle with auroch-like features to try to recover the species. Increasingly sophisticated parallel projects, making use of DNA data, continue in the Netherlands, Portugal, Croatia, Romania, and the Czech Republic.
The Higgs Bison
The ancient offspring of aurochs crossed with Ice Age steppe bison became a species the Australians dubbed the Higgs Bison, after the Higgs boson subatomic particle.
This hybrid species appears to have evolved into the European wood bison, while the North American bison descended directly from the Ice Agent steppe bison.
“Dated bones revealed that our new species and the steppe bison swapped dominance in Europe several times, in concert with major environmental changes caused by climate change,” research team leader Julien Soubrier told Nature Communications.
“When we asked,” Soubrier added, “French cave researchers told us that there were indeed two distinct forms of bison art in Ice Age caves, and it turns out their ages match those of the different species. We’d never have guessed the cave artists had helpfully painted pictures of both species for us.”
North American bison sent to Siberia
North American wood bison from Elk Island National Park in northern Alberta have since 2006 furnished the foundation herd for reintroduction of bison to the Taiga Zone of Yakutia, Siberia, directed by the Russian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund.
The project has reportedly built a herd of about 170 bison, half of them born in Jakutia, using North American wood bison as the progenitors because they are more closely related to the extinct bison population native to the region than European wood bison.
With that much said, notes the project web site. “The differences between American and European bison from their common ancestors – the Pleistocene steppe bison (Bison priscus) – are not very significant, due to the fact that the American and the European bison mated freely, producing fertile progeny.”