- This year, a $1.4 million project is about to release a herd of bison in an ancient English woodland, bringing back an animal that hasn’t been in the country for millennia.
- The European bison is expected to help regenerate the forest and boost insect, bird and plant life.
- Bison rewilding projects are springing up across Europe, contributing to the species’ conservation status improving from vulnerable to near threatened.
- North America is also rewilding with its bison species, including on Native America lands, helping to revitalize not only the ecosystem but Indigenous culture and heritage.
Each morning as the sun rises into the sky, ranger Donovan Wright stands on the outskirts of Blean Woods in the United Kingdom. The ancient woodland in southern England covers 509 hectares (1,257 acres) and is filled with broadleaf oak trees, birch and hazel. The former South African safari ranger of 20 years is welcomed by the chirping of native birds in the treetops. He might spy an inquisitive fox or rabbit darting through the undergrowth, or find badger tracks dotted along the leaf-strewn pathways. Yet, as he walks deeper into the ancient woods, the atmosphere changes.
“It is surprisingly quiet,” Wright told Mongabay. “If you look at an aerial view, you will go, ‘Wow, it’s so green and full of life.’ But that richness and biodiversity is not there.”
But soon a new animal, the biggest land mammal in Europe, will change everything.
In May 2022, Wright and fellow ranger Tom Gibbs will be introducing a herd of European bison (Bison bonasus) into the primeval woods in a $1.4 million project run by the Kent Wildlife Trust.
The last kind of bison that walked on this land was the ancient steppe bison (Bison priscus) some 12,000 years ago. The steppe bison’s closest living relative will now be transported from Poland, Germany and Ireland, and left to roam free among the glades. It is hoped these eco-engineers will use their sheer size and grazing habits to revitalize this ancient woodland.
“We have a serious problem with biodiversity at the moment,” Wright said, citing the latest “State of Nature” report, published annually by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), one of the U.K.’s biggest wildlife conservation NGOs. The report, Wright said, showed that “the lack of woodland management is the biggest reason for the lack of biodiversity in the U.K.”
From tip to tail, bison are expected to change the look of the woodland. Their massive size helps them punch through the undergrowth and let sunlight enter the forest floor. By eating bark and rubbing against trees, they create deadwood in the forest, a vital habitat for fungi and insects. And bison’s love of dust bathing creates natural glades that will become habitats for sand lizards and pioneer plants. Bison are also walking seed banks, as plant seeds get trapped in their fur and distributed when they fall out. Even their dung is also a food source for insects.
Yet as valuable as they are to forests, European bison nearly went extinct after World War I. In 1924, only 54 remained in zoos.
“It’s an amazing opportunity not only to restore the woods, but to help save the species and help create a genetic pool,” Wright said. The idea is that the Blean Woods bison release can become a blueprint for other bison projects in the U.K. Just a 10-minute drive from the city of Canterbury, the ancient woodland was once a former tree plantation and still contains pockets of pine trees. Researchers are interested in how the bison will affect the areas of monoculture.
The Wilder Blean team also plans to introduce feral moorland Exmoor ponies and Iron Age pigs (a wild boar and domestic pig hybrid) into the woods. Each will have its part to play, but it’s believed that the bison, at around 840 kilograms (1,850 pounds), will have the biggest impact. While the pigs will root in the soil and encourage the growth of wildflowers, the ponies will keep grasses in check. But the bison will create new environments for other creatures to survive and thrive.
“Through creating microhabitats in the area, it will attract different species and create a healthier ecosystem,” Wright said.
To judge the effectiveness of this eco-experiment, the Wilder Blean project will create three zones in the woods and manage them in different ways. The first zone will be managed by free-roaming wild bison; the second will feature English longhorn cattle; and the third will be managed in a more traditional manner by chainsaws. The animals will be tracked with the help of satellite collars so the rangers can see where they spend most of their time and how they affect the landscape. The data should help improve scientists’ understanding of how to keep the ancient woodland healthy and biodiverse, given its role as a massive carbon sink.
The rangers are now busy preparing for the bison’s arrival. They’re installing fences, digging watering holes, and building bison tunnels that provide viewing platforms while stopping the massive animals from coming into conflict with the public. In the future, they intend to offer safari walks, but not until the bison have settled into their new environment.
Europe’s new eco-warriors
Wright and Gibbs recently visited the Kraansvlak bison project in the Netherlands. Even after 15 years, the Dutch team is still discovering how these animals impact the ecosystem. Only recently, the rangers found that birds were using bison fur to line their nests, increasing the survival rate of the chicks.
Wilder Blean and Kraansvlak are just a couple examples from numerous rewilding projects in Europe using these nomadic grazers to help restore ecosystems. Conservationists have recently reintroduced bison into Denmark’s largest nature area, filled with raised bogs, primeval forests, grasslands, heaths and meadows. The first 10 animals arrived at the Lille Vildmose nature reserve in April 2021 from three different projects in the Netherlands, and by the middle of the year had welcomed their first calf.
“The bison will eat the grasses that the red deer don’t eat and they will also debark the trees and roam more,” said Jacob Palsgaard Anderson, forester and Lille Vildmose’s vice CEO. “They will keep the landscape open, make the nature area more diverse and able to hold more species. Without them it will just become a dense forest.”
Romania also recently released 100 bison into its mountainous Southern Carpathian region. Team leader and biologist Marina Drugă of WWF Romania said the decision to transfer this number of free-roaming bison into the area was based on scientific reasons.
“We view this as a founder population, which has the potential to grow and form a viable population with enough genetic variety,” Drugă said. The IUCN, the global conservation authority, has marked an improvement in the species’ conservation status from vulnerable to near threatened because of efforts such as these. Through natural breeding, this program aims to have 300 wild bison by 2024.
However, bison rewilding projects have not been without controversy. Bison are known to sometimes carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that induces abortions in bison, cattle and elk. The animals, which can roam up to 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) a year, have also come into conflict with landowners who don’t appreciate the giant eco-engineers removing bark from the trees on their land.
Still, the story of the European bison across the continent is a rare one of near extinction followed, after nearly a century of work, to rising abundance.
Strides to save a species in the United States
Europe is not the only continent to embrace bison rewilding projects to help revitalize ecosystems. In North America, Yellowstone National Park has joined with the Fort Peck Tribes in Montana and the InterTribal Buffalo Council to reintroduce American bison (Bison bison), which are slightly shorter and stockier than the European bison, to tribal lands.
The relocation of the Yellowstone bison, or buffalo, is a conservation solution that is expected to aid the animal’s long-term survival and, like in Europe, transform ecosystems. Each year, Yellowstone officials capture hundreds of bison and send them to slaughter as there are limits on how many bison the park can hold, especially with pressure from nearby cattle ranches.
The Bison Conservation Transfer Program is currently diverting disease-free bison from Yellowstone to Fort Peck. The first transfer of bison was completed in 2019, but the bison remained in quarantine for a year on Fort Peck’s pastures before they were transferred to other tribal lands around the United States.
“We have sent the buffalo as far away as Alaska. We’ve probably sent buffalo to 19 different tribes already,” said Robert Magnan, director of the Fort Peck Tribes’ Fish and Game Department. In December 2021, Fort Peck transferred 56 bison, after quarantine, to the Yakama Nation in Washington state and the Modoc Nation in Oklahoma.
Magnan, who was born on the reservation, has already seen the impact that bison can make. Fort Peck was without buffalo for 137 years.
“We ran a study with the University of Michigan and found the way that the buffalo graze makes the grasses healthier, and they even brought back bird species that were missing,” he said.
While European bison feed on leaves and bark, American buffalo feed on grass. Unlike cattle, they don’t stay in one area and eat, however; they browse, moving and eating throughout the day.
“They create different heights of grasses in pastures, which makes it healthier, and they also graze the tops of the grasses, which gives it a chance to regrow faster,” Magnan said.
Thirty million bison once roamed across North America, from Canada to Texas. By 1884, only 325 wild buffalo were left, some of which were in Yellowstone. While there are now 400,000 bison in North America today, most are domesticated and have been interbred with cattle at some point. The bison sent to Fort Peck from Yellowstone are the direct descendants of the bison that managed to survive the slaughter of the 19th century.
To the people of Fort Peck and the Yakama and Modoc nations, the return of the buffalo is more far-reaching than ecological health. Not only are the animals revitalizing the land, but the people themselves. Magnan said that Native American communities are rediscovering ceremonies that died out with the loss of the bison, they’re renewing their ability to farm bison, and they’re also boosting their health. With the incidence of diabetes high in these areas, lean bison meat provides a healthier alternative to processed foods.
“Buffalo has been connected to Native Americans since the beginning of time,” Magnan said. “They are even in our creation stories. They have a belief that the creator put the buffalo there for us because humans weren’t smart enough to live like the wildlife.”
The Fort Peck community has dubbed its new $4 million wellness center the Thundering Buffalo Wellness Center, and the community college basketball team is now called the Buffalo Chasers.
Magnan helped bring the first truck carrying buffalo into Fort Peck.
“It was a very religious moment. I felt good that we were reconnecting to them again,” he said. “Every day I am learning more and more.”
Not only have the buffalo helped revive the landscape, but their arrival has also helped bring Native American families together as they relearn the rituals and their roles.
“It is a family affair,” Magnan said. “The family accompany the herd and when the hunter takes the animal’s life they will go and help them cut up the meat.”
Magnan said they haven’t set a limit on the buffalo they currently transfer onto tribal lands. As long as Yellowstone is happy to continue the program, they will keep relocating these wild animals to other tribal areas.
“There is a competition in Indian country now who is getting the biggest herd. We used to have a competition on who has the largest group of buffalo, now we’ve outpaced that,” Magnan said with a laugh.
While the rewilding programs on either side of the Atlantic differ, they both understand that the best wildlife manager is nature itself. It doesn’t need human interference.
“If you just give nature the time and space to heal, it will,” said Wilder Blean’s Donovan Wright. “By replacing vital keystone species, such as bison, back into the system, they can kick-start these changes and help us restore these habitats.”
Banner image: Newly released American bison frolicking in Fort Peck. Image courtesy of Jacob W. Frank/NPS.