Wildlife & Biodiversity

Wisent: Ukraine war could wreck efforts to save and rewild Europe’s great wild bovid, say new study authors

Parts of Poland, Ukraine, western Russia, parts of the Balkans and Germany most appropriate to rewild wisent

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 15 December 2023
A European bison in the Białowieza Forest of Eastern Europe on a winter day. Photo: iStock

The ongoing war in Ukraine could act as a spanner in the works for efforts to save the last remnant of the megafauna that once roamed the European Continent, the authors of a new study have warned.

The wisent, also known as the European wood bison, was almost wiped out by 1927 from Europe. Conservation efforts in its last remaining strongholds, including Ukraine and Russia, have raised hopes of a revival even in other parts of Europe that were once parts of its range.

However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022, can destroy such hopes, according to the authors of the study.

“I hope that the maps we have produced can help inform future efforts in terms of where reintroduction efforts should occur,” lead author of the study, July Pilowsky, said in a statement by the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York. Pilowsky works at the Institute as a disease ecologist.

“It is especially crucial because of the war in Ukraine. Over 50 per cent of all free-living bison are in Ukraine, and conservationists are really worried,” Pilowsky added.

Rewilding wisent

The wisent roamed across Europe in large herds at the end of the last ice age. But by 1927, almost a decade after World War I, it became extinct in the wild, with only about 60 individuals remaining in captivity.

The study, titled Millennial processes of population decline, range contraction and near extinction of the European bison, found that rapid environmental change and hunting by humans were the main drivers of the wisent’s extirpation across Europe.

The researchers built a detailed simulation that combined paleoclimate data, vegetation and habitat information, the population growth and expansion of Palaeolithic humans across Eurasia, and bison population and dispersal dynamics.

They ran 55,000 different simulations to explore how climate, hunting by humans, and land use change affected bison population and distribution across Europe.

The scientists found that hunting caused range loss in the north and east of the wisent’s distribution, while land use change was responsible for losses in the west and south. “The arrival of firearms in the 1500s dramatically hastened the species’ decline,” the statement noted.

The researchers also created maps to show areas across the continent where the species can be ‘rewilded’.

Such efforts are already on, according to the study. “However, rewilding has been done without a strong understanding of habitats and regions where bison once thrived. As a result, the species has been released at sites ranging from the coastal dunes of the Netherlands to the mountains of the French Alps and the Mediterranean climate of Spain, with mixed success,” according to the statement.

Instead, researchers said the most appropriate areas for rewilding wisent would be parts of Poland, Ukraine, western Russia, parts of the Balkans and Germany.

“The European bison is a priority species for conservation because it serves an important role as an ecosystem engineer, restoring grassland habitat,” the statement noted. There are approximately 7,300 free-ranging European bison today.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences on December 12, 2023.

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