Poland: Last of the European Woodland Bison

Dozens of bison emerge timidly from the dark trunks of a primeval forest, their imposing bulk masking their vulnerability. Step by step, the huge beasts with their thick hides enter a clearing where foresters have served up a tonne of hay and sugar beets to supplement their winter diet. “In the winter we feed them so they won’t destroy forest vegetation or go in search of food on farms,” explains Miroslaw Androsiuk while spreading out the bails of hay.

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About 800 bison live freely in the vast Bialowieza forest, the final
remnant of a massive woodland that covered Europe after the last Ice
Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago. The forest spans the
Polish-Belarussian border, with some 450 bison living on the Polish
side. These cousins of the North American buffalo have miraculously
survived repeated peril. The 700 animals that lived in the Bialowieza
forest prior to Word War I were wiped out by German soldiers and local
poachers.

The species was saved from extinction thanks to seven
captive animals — though there is an Achilles’ heel. “These bison are
closely related and it could lead to the disappearance of the entire
group,” says chief Bialowieza forest ranger Jerzy Dackiewicz. “This
weak genetic diversity can pose problems in the future if, for
example, they won’t have the right genes to protect them from a
certain type of illness,” says Rafal Kowalczyk, a researcher at the
Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) base in Bialowieza.

Up to now, the herd has shown no sign of deleterious traits due toinbreeding, he says. The park keeps some 30 animals isolated in captivity for breeding stock to maintain the species, should the free-range bison herd succumb to disease.

“Many researchers estimate that the bare minimum group required to insure long-term survival is 500 to 1,000. So even the Bialowieza population may not be enough,” says Kowalczyk. Politics have made things worse.

Polish bison have not been able to mate with herds from Belarus since 1981 when the Eastern bloc masters in Moscow — worried about the momentum building in Poland’s anti-communist Solidarity movement — installed a fence along the length of the border between what was then the Soviet republics of  Belarus and Poland. Under Belarus’ authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko, this Soviet-era vestige along what is now the European Union’s eastern frontier has been kept.

There are currently 28 bison herds roaming freely across Europe including ones in Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Ukraine and more recently in Slovakia. Most herds have fewer than 100 animals. One group from Bialowieza lives in semi-captivity in the deeply rural department of Lozere in southern France.

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Comments (4)

Johannes GrooteApril 1st, 2009 at 11:45 pm

I am a Dutch naturalist who has spent much of my life exploring Canada and the United States. There are many grave developments in North American ecology, but the Bison has become a success story over there. They have been brought back both in the wild, and in captivity, to great positive effect, both as a member of the regional ecosystem, and as an excellent food supply and income source for farmers who exist in close proximity to wilderness. The European Bison is a magnificent animal, and one that may be very important for future human survival in Europe, if the planet responds to the current global warming trend by ultimately entering into another ice age after a certain point (a clear prediction by many accredited scientists). The Bison is easily able to withstand low winter temperatures that will kill many other wild and domesticated animals, with little assistance. It is a hardy species, and an excellent source of quality food for humans and larger predators like wolves and bears. I would request that all of the natural resource authorities in Europe make an effort to supply breeding pairs of genetically different bison, from other jurisdictions, to the authorities responsible for the herd in Poland. Also, it would help if Belorussia took the fence down between their two countries, in the hope of encouraging interbreeding. Personally, I believe that the love of the wilderness and its inhabitants, amongst all naturalists, should work to transcend the foolishness of short term political interests that create policies counter to the interests of both human and other natural species’, as a whole.

b.k.April 16th, 2009 at 4:02 pm

what is the location of the picture with snow-capped mountains. It looks like the tatry mountains

CynthiaSeptember 8th, 2009 at 11:31 am

I have read that there are bison down in the Tatras. Perhaps that is why the photo is there. I have been trying to find mention in guidebooks any hiking trails that would be likely to result in spotting some bison. So far I have not found any such guide book.

KrzysztofMarch 16th, 2010 at 12:05 am

This photo of mountains is not from Poland. I think this is from Alps. There aren’t european bisons (zubr) in Tatras. The nearest place from Tatras where bisons live is Bieszczady (mountains on Polish – Ukrainian border). They live there free. Another place near Tatra Mountains where bisons live is Pszczyna. It is about 200 km from Tatras. Bisons live here in half-free breeding.
Greetings from Poland

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