'Straight Out of a Western Film': European Bison Return to Wild in Germany

By Marco Evers

Part 2: 'People Were on the Verge of Fistfights'

The forestry director and the mayor embarked on a few peace missions to the Köllsche region, but their efforts were in vain. Tourists would be afraid to go into the forest, the opponents grumbled, adding that wisent bulls would mount dairy cows and father wisent and dairy cattle hybrids, and the herds would severely damage the forest with their hooves. Tempers were running so high that "people were on the verge of fistfights," says Röhl. He almost gave up.

The wisent supporters also encountered official skepticism. The state Environment Ministry in Düsseldorf eventually put together a list of 60 questions to study the potential dangers posed by the wisents. It took scientists from four universities more than four years to come up with the answers.

A forestry economist from the University of Göttingen examined whether forest owners could expect to see feeding damage. The answer was no. Wisents consume large amounts of raspberries, stinging nettles and grasses, but they rarely touch young spruce and beech trees. "The damage will be almost undetectable," says Röhl, especially as the herd will initially be limited to 25 head.

The ruminants will probably even be a little useful, because they keep ecologically valuable areas, along streams, for example, free of undergrowth -- a task currently being performed by forest workers.

Philip Schmitz, 32, a doctoral candidate at the University of Siegen, addressed the issue of how dangerous wisents are for people. To that end, he sent volunteers to approach the animals once a month while he observed from a distance, wearing camouflage and equipped with binoculars and a camera.

The volunteers approached the beasts on foot or with mountain bikes, alone and in groups, accompanied by barking dogs or creeping along the ground like wildlife photographers. "There was never a dangerous incident," says Schmitz. The wisents, which are flight animals, bolted by the time humans had come within 40 meters (around 130 feet) of them.

There has never been an attack in Poland's Bialowieza National Park, near the country's border to Belarus, where about 450 wisents now live in the wild. "You have to have respect for the animals, of course," says Röhl. "If the wisent wants to kill you, he can do it." But the same thing applies to deer and wild boar, he points out.

Another scientist studied wisent feces, in which he found the eggs of dung beetles, which haven't been seen in German forests in centuries. That's because the type of dung beetle native to the area requires large piles of dung, of the sort that no other animal in the forest produces. "The wisent isn't showing up alone," says Röhl.

Will Wisent Attract Tourists?

Social scientists interviewed hikers to determine whether they felt drawn to or deterred by wisents. The majority said that a forest with wisents living in it is more exciting than without wisents. But that is precisely the problem.

Many hikers hoping to spot a wisent in the wild are likely to be disappointed. Once they have been successfully released into the wild, the animals will probably be so timid that people will rarely encounter them. If the wisent becomes Bad Berleburg's main attraction, it'll be an invisible one, which isn't good for business.

But local officials promptly came up with a solution. Along the Rothaarsteig hiking trail, there is a viewing enclosure the size of 10 medium-sized Ikea stores in an open area of forest land cleared by the violent windstorm Kyrill, which struck Germany in 2007 and toppled more than 40 million trees. There are six additional wisents living in the enclosure; the animals are curious about people and show themselves readily. Since it opened in September, the "Wisent Wilderness" has attracted more than 10,000 paying visitors. Some of the revenues will benefit the animals' free brethren in the forest.

It is a freedom with limits, however. The wisents of Bad Berleburg will never become a truly wild herd, because their numbers are too small. They only stand a chance of surviving if human beings intervene carefully in their lives.

As soon as his offspring are sexually mature, Egnar, the bull, will have to leave the herd. Another bull will take his place and remain with the herd until his offspring are mature. Rigorous family planning is necessary, because inbreeding will result if fresh genes are not introduced to the gene pool.

Wanda Olech of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences decides which male is to be brought into the German herd. She is familiar with all wisents, because she manages the studbook. Her objective is to select a bull that is as unrelated as possible to the cows in the Rothaar Mountains.

The two leaders of the herd have also been fitted with a GPS transmitter. Using a relatively non-interventional method that dispenses with fences and dogs, Röhl and his team intend to limit the animals' territory to roughly 40 square kilometers, or about a third of the estate. The winter feeding area is supposed to serve as their actual home, and Prince Richard, at any rate, is convinced that the plan will work. "They're incredibly lazy animals," he says.

The GPS signal will also help guide the prince's hunting parties, along with the drivers and dogs, into areas where none of the marksmen will be tempted to shoot one of the animals. The prince himself has solemnly pledged never to kill a wisent.

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1. European Bison Return to Wild in Germany
NeilFiertel 12/25/2012
Bison are very shy, reticent to be around people and if cornered, well, not a good idea but they avoid this, believe me! In a small herd the males form a formidable defensive perimeter, heads down and shoulder to shoulder and thus nothing to be trifled with, it goes without saying. The question is..are they thus dangerous? The answer is, leave them alone and they will most certainly reciprocate. They are beautiful and impressive for the smaller of the bison family and are similar to what we all here in Canada, Prairie Bison as opposed to the truly huge Woodlands Bison. One an go to preserves where bison roam freely and no one is injured by rampaging bison. In other words, keep children away from them, stay back at least 100 metres and don't try sneaking up on them. They are NOT cattle as one thinks as they are related but have a much more suspicious and wild nature which is why they survived the Ice Age. You are lucky to have been able to save these beautiful creatures from extinction. You will not be sorry to see them in the forest and fields.
2.
powermeerkat 12/26/2012
"The species lived on in Eastern Europe, until a poacher killed the last specimen in the Caucasus in 1927." ++++ What a nonsence! European bison has survived in Eastern Poland's Białowieża Forest, and since 1950s and today hundreds of them live there (being a protected species).
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