Wisent in the Wild - Rewilding Habitats for European Bison in the Tarcu Mountains

Posted by Cain Blythe - CEnv MIEMA MCIEEM MSc BSc (Hons) on 3/10/2014
When people talk about wildlife and ecosystems they often talk of preserving them, although this is a limited view and is often typical of people and naturalists who are attached to habitats and species as they knew them in their lifetime only. This condition is often referred to as Shifting Baseline Syndrome and what is often not realised is that it is also possible to restore local habitats to the state they once were, to a state that is richer in biodiversity and healthier for people.
Across Europe a number of projects are looking to achieve this and the process is now increasingly referred to as rewilding, the return of habitats to an uncultivated, or naturalised state.
One species that is benefitting from rewilding efforts is the Wisent (European Bison), which currently exist in small isolated herds scattered across Central and Eastern Europe. The species requires large tracts of forest in order to survive and the Tarcu Mountains is thought to offer ideal habitat with a mosaic of core and perforated forest cover and managed or browsed grasslands.
Despite being rarer than the black rhino, efforts of organisations such as Rewilding Europe and the World Wide Fund for Nature have seen the European Bison return from the brink of extinction. The European Bison was exposed to a similar fate of overhunting as its American cousin and the last wild population was reduced to only 54 in 1925, and the last few were left scrabbling for survival in the Bia?owie?a Forest, Poland.
The Tarcu Mountains were selected for release of the European Bison as it is one of the largest unfragmented forest areas in Europe and is home to other keystone species such as lynx, wolves and brown bear, as well as having links with other herds, established in countries like the Ukraine, Poland and Slovakia. Over the course of 2014 the bison have been returned to the Carpathians to further increase the range of species, first into a small 15ha enclosure, then released into a 150ha reserve and finally into the 60,000ha forest, which is thought to have potential to support up to 300 bison.
For organisations such as Rewilding Europe the goal is to increase the amount of wild environments in Europe in order to encourage greater biodiversity which is good for people as well as animals.
However, as well as environmental benefits there are also economic benefits for rewilding projects. In Europe there is now a trend for younger people to move away from countryside areas, because employment prospects tend to be limited. This effect is predicted to worsen over the next few decades and there are early signs that the process of reintroducing bison (and other keystone species) will support local businesses by generating ecotourism and hospitality opportunities and providing greater incentive for people to remain in the area.
It is also important to emphasise this because projects of this nature are dependent on an enthusiastic local community. As Dr Alan Feest points out that rewilding projects need to take full advantage of opportunities that can be offered to people.
“Local administrators can make or break projects…education and finance is essential!”, says Feest.
What is clear is that projects like this have great potential, both in ecological and economic terms. The key is ensuring a long term commitment in order to gain long term reward.
This blog was written by Cain Blythe who recently visited the Tarcu Mountains in Southwest Romania, with photojournalist Daniel Allen (www.daniel-allen.net) to cover the emerging story of the release of the mighty Wisent back into the region. This story was published in the South China Morning Post (http://bit.ly/1r6vMoP) and further articles are being prepared for Geographical magazine.