Back in 2010, people started an ambitious project to bring the wild European bison (Bison bonasus), also known as wisent, back to Germany. After a 3-year transition phase, the first wild European bison roamed Germany again. Attempts of a European bison from Poland to settle on German territory ended up in authorities shooting the European bison. The reintroduction project became a success. Conservationists managed to transport a European bison herd of eight animals to the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia. The European bison herd has grown, and forest farmers are demanding control. Last month, politicians, conservationists and forest farmers agreed on a compromise to fence the wild European bison in on a 1 500 hectare area.
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The discussions between forest farmers, conservationists and politicians has been going on for the last years. Recently the provincial Minister of Environment of North-Rhine Westphalia met with the other groups to find an interim solution.
After the first year of reintroduction, the wild European bison herd produced a lot of young European bison. According to the latest estimation, the herd has now 20 individuals. The herd’s initial territory, Rothaargebirge, is a forest territory of Prince Richard, the 6th Prince of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. However, some animals started to wander from the Rothaargebirge into the neighbouring forests of Sauerland. Two forest farmers there were not happy with this, as the European bison ate from their beech trees. Since then, the forest farmers tried to stop the conservation project.
Damage compensation not enough
A special fund covers the forest damage in Sauerland, yet this was not enough for the forest farmers. As a result, a legal fight followed for many years in court. Attempts to mediate failed time after time. In fact, the case ended up in the Higher Regional Court, which judged the European bison as wild animals. Forest farmers have to tolerate the wild animals. However, the conservationists also have to install appropriate measures to prevent European bison damaging other forests. The consequence would be that the European bison are put behind a fence, conflicting with their ‘wild’ status.
The compromise between forest farmers, conservationists and politicians is now to install a permeable fence. The fence would allow smaller animals to cross, as well as humans. Yet, European bison are not able to cross the fence. At first, conservationists will try to initially lure the wild European bison back into the designated 1 500 hectare area with food. This is already happening this year.
Furthermore, an independent report will be made to make a final decision on the future of the European bison conservation project. Following this, the final decision will take place within the next three to five years.
More and more, we notice the tendency where people want to control wild animals again. Using sometimes traditional techniques, combined with new technology, people want to control everything. As an example is the tendency to collar all wolves. It is not a new tendency, people always want to control their surroundings. The question is how long we continue to let ourselves do so, while disrupting and destroying the last wildest places on our planet.
Doomed to fail?
Looking at other examples where large herbivores remained within a fenced area, this interim solution might be doomed to fail. The best example is the Dutch Oostvaarderplassen. In this fenced area, herbivores had unlimited opportunities to grow and expand without natural control. They were reintroduced there based on the hypothesis bison as large herbivores make the functioning of the ecosystems more natural. Big predators such as wolves were not able to bring natural balance in the local system, as they could not access the perimeter. As a result, the number of herbivores grew beyond proportion and consumed practically all vegetation. After many protests, this led to additional feeding in harsh times and climaxed with culling of thousands of animals. If Germany keeps their former wild European bison in a closed area where they can grow, at some point the population will be too big. What is next, are we going to kill the bison? Are we letting them starve of ‘natural death’ because of lack of food? Do we start with additional feeding programmes? Or are we capturing European bison and transport them elsewhere to move the problem to another location? It is of crucial importance to keep the European bison in an open and dynamic ecosystem, where natural enemies like the wolf can fulfil their important role as ecosystem engineer.