A century ago, only 50 European bison remained on Earth, and they were mostly confined to breeding sanctuaries. But today, far from the rolling American plains, wild bison in Europe are recovering in large numbers.
The European wood bison population has grown so much that it's no longer considered 'vulnerable' according to the global authority on conservation, the IUCN, in their latest Red List update.
Bison are living in in Poland, the Netherlands, Russia, Belarus, the Baltics, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Romania. In total there are well over 6,000 individuals across 47 free ranging herds, and all thanks to large scale conservation strategies - it’s a wonderful example of what can be accomplished with large herbivores when given time, space, and safety.
In Russia, one of the prime habitats for European bison, the national WWF-chapter has been introducing genetically distinct wood bison in the Caucuses Mountains for 11 years, and their herds total 143 in three different groups, though there could easily be thousands more of them in the North Caucuses - but nobody's sure.
“The conservation successes in today’s Red List update provide living proof that the world can set, and meet, ambitious biodiversity targets,” said Dr. Jane Smart, Global Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group in a statement.
Eight of the 47 bison herds are genetically viable for long-term survival, so scientists need to rotate animals in and out of herds in order to ensure healthy genetic lineages. Establishing greater numbers of separate herds will also help prevent irreparable loss due to things like disease or natural disasters.
This led to the establishment of a project in England, at Blean Woods in Kent, which will receive Dutch and Polish bison to create the country's first wild herd for 6,000 years.
English conservationists and wildlife managers are interested in the effects bison have on the landscape. As large grazing herbivores, the constant foraging, digging, scuffing, and breaking they do on the forest floor is expected to have a tremendously 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. This turns the tree 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.
In this way they act like forestry experts, and the Kent Wildlife Trust hopes that this 'cornerstone' species will prop up declining populations of plants, birds, insects, and mammals by way of their unique habits. Fingers crossed!