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

For the first time since the 18th century, the European bison is returning to Germany to live in the wild. The wisent, as it is also known, has been brought to the country by a famous prince. Although the creatures' survival is uncertain, the project has already attracted considerable attention.

With nothing but spruce trees for entire square kilometers at a time, this managed forest isn't exactly what you would call a wilderness. Nevertheless, the forest, together with its ponds and meadows, provides shelter to many a rare species.

In the forest surrounding the town of Bad Berleburg, on the southern edge of North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany, the lynx stalks its prey through the underbrush, the black stork breeds in the spring and the kingfisher engages in courtship rituals. And almost every day, even in rain or snow, and on Sundays, the aristocratic owner drives around in an SUV.

Wearing boots and work clothing, and always carrying a chainsaw on board, the nobleman keeps an eye on things on his estate. "It's part of it," says Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, 78, one of the most important forest owners in Germany. "People who own factories also have to go there every day," he explains.

Inspecting the forest is no trivial matter. The estate extends across many of the hills of the Rothaar Mountains, and usually as far as the eye can see. It measures about 13,000 hectares (32,124 acres, or 50 square miles), or roughly half the land area of Manhattan. On this particular day, the inspection wasn't entirely without incident, as is often the case.

"There was a spruce tree lying across the path," Prince Richard later reports at Bad Berleburg Castle, where his family has resided for more than 750 years. The SUV also slipped down an embankment and got stuck in the snow. "Shit," says His Highness. "And I didn't have any mobile phone reception, either."

But the afternoon was more successful. "I saw two female wild boars with 16 piglets," says the prince. Keeping an eye on his animals out in the forest is his hobby, he says. They include about 300 wild sheep, 400 red deer, 600 wild boar and so many roe deer that his seven foresters have concluded they are no longer countable.

The prince's daily trips into the forest are about to get a little more interesting.

Germany's First Wild Bison Since 1746

Since he hit upon the idea almost a decade ago, Prince Richard has been at the center of Germany's most interesting experiment in species conservation. Now the project, which receives about €1.5 million ($2 million) in government subsidies, is about to enter its critical phase.

The state Environment Ministry in Düsseldorf issued its approval shortly before Christmas, and over the next few days several men will drive into the forest and remove the fence around an acclimation enclosure in place since 2010. When that happens, a herd of eight European bison, or wisent, will be free to roam in the woods. It consists of an enormous bull, five cows and two calves.

But it will be some time before they have explored the expanse of the entire forest. Like most of the wild game, the wisents are fed grass silage at this time of the year, which makes them somewhat lethargic. They will be more interested in feeding before enjoying their newfound freedom.

Nevertheless, this is the first time since 1746 that wisent will roam unchecked through a German forest. Europe's largest land animal was eradicated in Spain and France centuries ago. The species lived on in Eastern Europe, until a poacher killed the last specimen in the Caucasus in 1927.

It would have spelled the end of this close relative of the American bison, which is roughly the same size, if it hadn't been for the few animals that survived in zoos. They had already attracted the attention of conservationists in the 1920s. All of the roughly 3,000 wisents alive today are the descendants of only about a dozen original animals.

Now the soon-to-be-free bison are grazing in the prince's forest, surrounded by spruce trees. They are quiet, muscular, brown and massive animals. Egnar, the thick-necked bull with a massive chest, occasionally head-butts the other wisents to remind them who is in charge. As innocuous as this behavior may seem, it isn't entirely without hazard for the others. In one instance, he ripped open a young bull's peritoneum with his horns, killing the animal.

The notion of freedom for the European bison sounds terrific, but it also raises questions. Wild, giant animals, up to two meters (about 6.5 feet) tall and weighing up to a ton, roaming through the forest without fences or supervision? The animals will do as they please and eat what they want. And they'll roam wherever the leader takes them, even it happens to be along a major road or through the nearest village.

What will happen to hikers along the famous Rothaarsteig trail, which runs through the forest, when they suddenly find themselves face to face with one of these ancient bulls? And what will happen to forestry workers? Will the prince remain indulgent when the wisent starts peeling the bark from his young spruce trees? And can the animals, all born in captivity, even survive in the wild?

Germany is the first country west of Poland where the wisent will live in the wild once again. And whether the experiment is a success or a failure, it will certainly set an example.

A March Through German Bureaucracy

Johannes Röhl, 54, takes a laid-back approach to the future -- like a military commander who knows that his army is extremely well equipped. Röhl, always dressed in green, is a "forestry director in private service." He is the modern-day equivalent of an estate manager: the prince's right-hand man and, as such, the manager of his forest and of the wisent.

When the prince told him about his brilliant idea in 2003, Röhl thought to himself: "Is this an obsession?" But he read up on the subject, made some phone calls and did his research. Then he told his boss: "It'll work," to which the prince responded: "Then do it."

Thus armed with the succinct decree of a prince, the bison's march through the German bureaucracy began. A few national parks in Germany could also have initiated a wisent release into the wild, especially as species conservation is their original raison d'être. The Eifel Mountains National Park in western Germany once considered a giant enclosure, but opposition to the idea quickly killed the plan. Sometimes having only a small number of decision-makers is a good thing.

"We are a commercial forestry operation," says Röhl in his office, where the walls are decorated with the antlers of bucks he shot, and where Ginny, his hunting dog, is lying in her basket. "With this project, we want to show that we can be active in species conservation while simultaneously running a forestry operation, one that supports the prince's family, the castle and 70 employees." It does wonders for the reputation of a commercial private forestry operation, says Röhl. "After all, we're commonly viewed as plantation owners."

A Town Warms to the Idea

When Bernd Fuhrmann became the mayor of Bad Berleburg, a city of 20,000 people, he promptly paid a visit to the prince. On that evening in the castle, in late 2004, Fuhrmann, 47, was also told about the plan. He was perplexed. "Bison, now aren't they the ones you see in Westerns?" he thought to himself. "It wasn't the sort of project that I would have welcomed right away."

But he eventually warmed to the idea. Since the demise of the German health spa industry, Bad Berleburg has seen a decline in visitors, bars, jobs and residents. Not much grows there, aside from trees. The soil is poor and it rains a lot. It was clear to Fuhrmann that what the city needed was "something with charisma." Why not the European bison?

The ancestors of the town's residents were once the subjects of the prince's ancestors, and now they also proved to be compliant. "They didn't say much here in the area," says Prince Richard, "but they did over there." He's talking about the land beyond his estate, where people live to whom the prince refers as the "Köllschem" or "Cologne types." And they, typically enough, were completely opposed to the idea.

From the perspective of local residents, the ridge of the Rothaar Mountains divides the world into two halves. On the Bad Berleburg side is an area known as the Wittgensteiner Land, where the people are staunchly Protestant and speak an Upper Hessian dialect, and the economy is ailing. On the other side is the High Sauerland region, which has a growing tourism industry and a deeply Catholic population that speaks a Low German dialect similar to the dialect spoken in Cologne, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the west. For centuries, the two neighboring populations have been about as partial to each other as the residents of Cologne and Düsseldorf (neighboring Rhineland cities that are notorious for their antagonism towards each other), which is to say that the wisent was being released between two somewhat antagonistic fronts.

'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.