In this blog, Monica Vasile discusses the problematic, complicated and ambivalent ‘success story’ of the reintroduction of European bison in Romania – the subject of her new, Open Access, article in Environment and History: From Reintroduction to Rewilding: Autonomy, Agency and the Messy Liberation of the European Bison
Amidst the gloom of environmental news, updates involving European bison (Bison bonasus or wisent) are on the bright side. The ‘living legend’ bison that became extinct in the wild, shot and eaten by soldiers in the aftermath of World War One, is nowadays ‘recovered’ – a result of decades of intensive human management. Overdramatic press headlines celebrate the return of the king, the big wild beast, in Germany, in the UK, in the Netherlands, in Romania, Poland and other places. The journey of this species is often invoked as proof that conservation works, that coming back from the brink of extinction is possible. Yet, conservationists are cautious. Success is debatable, a matter of perspective and degree.
Even if European bison grew in numbers to over 6,200 in 2019, counting 47 free-ranging herds, scientists warn that ‘herds are largely isolated from one another’ and ‘only eight of them are large enough to be genetically viable in the long term’ (IUCN, 2020). And there is more bad news. Modelling the spread of bison during the Holocene and before, analysing ancient DNA and looking at bison jaw bones, scientists still argue fiercely over whether forest habitat – where all the recovered bison live – is actually good for the wisent (Kerley et al., 2012; Kuemmerle et al., 2012, 2018). Are bison in fact obligate grazers that became refugees, pushed by encroaching humans and forests into ‘suboptimal habitat’? This would imply that bison will never be able to thrive in forests and are somewhat stuck. Large grasslands unused by humans, where five hundred bison can run free, are nowhere to be found in Europe yet.
All of this suggests not only uncertain futures for the bison, but a very complicated human-bison relationship that started many years in the past – a relationship in which notions of care, recovery, viability, autonomy, wildness, agency, are ambivalent, situational and in flux. A relationship that is, like any other, better described as a process, practices unfolding in time, emerging from contingencies, forged one step at a time.
In my article just published in Environment and History, I explore this relationship by looking at histories of practice. I document a reintroduction of European Bison into the South-Western Carpathians of Romania in the 2010s and compare it with long-term recovery efforts in the Białowieża forest in Poland. I focus on tensions between hands-on practice predicated on control on one side, and hands-off practice predicated on autonomy and agency, on the other side. Debates and switches in management, historical and contemporary, reveal how bison managers navigated a messy terrain, permanently questioning how much care and support to give to animals, whether at all, when to intervene and when to let loose. During my research in Romania I noticed an ongoing process of attunement. The managers and rangers adjusted their practice in relation to the animals’ responses, dealing in realm of uncertainty, experimentation and compromise.
Ultimately, averting the extinction of a species entails a painstaking process in which human-animal relations are constantly revisited and recalibrated. This is a complex, entangled and uncertain process that can be metaphorically envisioned as both humans and animals walking the fine line – between care and relinquishment, between feeding and not feeding, habituation and autonomy, tame and wild, life and death. Leaning towards one side or the other is subject to historical change and to situational circumstances.
In 1924, an international plan for preserving the European bison was set in motion, and the first international society aimed at the preservation of an endangered species in Europe (for a detailed discussion see Ch. 4 in De Bont, 2021). The preservationists knew very little about what the rescue of this species would involve. They knew that they needed to ‘make more’ bison, as their numbers were down to dauntingingly few. They became extinct in the wild, and an inventory counted only 54 bison surviving in captivity, of which only twelve reproduced. As they turned from a local wild animal to an international object of breeding (De Bont 2021), European bison numbers grew. They started to be set free from enclosures in 1952.
In the following years, the reintroduced bison in the Polish Białowieża Forest were managed heavily, in the spirit of a ‘breeding’ philosophy – e.g. fed hay, medically treated against parasites and diseases. The ‘optimal’ number of wisents that the forest could hold was subject to political negotiations, and hence to regulation, as, from the 1970s, the bison started to be perceived as an overabundant species, while continuing to be hailed as a symbol of the nation and of the struggle for conservation (for the Polish case see Krasińska & Krasiński, 2013 and Niedziałkowski, 2019). From 1971, culling started as a management method. In the next four decades, nearly 900 bison were culled, a few because they were blind, some for entering farmers’ fields, and large numbers because they suffered from painful diseases. Culling, organised as hunting enterprises (ironically recalling the very cause that precipitated the demise of the species), was also a source of revenue. The hands-on approach continued unabashed throughout the decades, fuelled by fears that hungry bison would damage trees and crops, by the appetite of trophy hunters, by scandals and debates between various institutions operating in and around the Białowieża Forest. The wisent was perceived as a fragile and precious ‘king of the forest’, capable of mischief but in need of sustained human help.
Yet, from 1990 onwards, the influence of non-interventionist ideas began to grow. Wisents were increasingly seen as part of the ecosystem, animals able to migrate freely, regulated by natural selection (Niedziałkowski, 2019). Experts showed that, inherited from nineteenth-century management practices, the feeding had a negative impact on wisent health, overall making their physical condition worse, reducing movement and increasing the load of parasites (Kowalczyk et al., 2011; Samojlik et al., 2019; Wołk & Krasińska, 2004). It was considered that management practice inspired by livestock farming, slowed down the ability of European bison to naturally adapt (Vlasakker, 2014). Under the pressure of scientific results, both wisent management in Poland and the general guidelines as to how this species should be managed have been shifting in recent years away from a breeding-controlling perspective and towards a rewilding-autonomy perspective.
Nearly sixty years after the first Polish release, in late spring 2014, seventeen European bison arrived by truck in the South-western Carpathians from zoos and captive-breeding reserves, and made their way out of the trailers after exhausting trips. Many more arrived in the following years. Wisents came here as both a rewilding and a reintroduction project. While the Dutch NGO Rewilding Europe thought of it more as a rewilding project, the Romanian WWF team on the ground focused more on the species reintroduction aspect. Although they combine well, a slight tension exists between these two types of conservation practice – in rewilding, the focus is on restoring a lost ecosystem, while in reintroduction it is saving a species. The term rewilding is sometimes used to signify reintroductions, the return of captive-born animals into free-range settings (see Jørgensen, 2015). But most often rewilding involves a whole suite of desired changes in a landscape, in which reintroduction of keystone species such as bison is but one practice. From this perspective, the bison is seen as a ‘nature engineer’, opening up forested area, restoring ecosystems through grazing, browsing, trampling, fertilising soil with poop. Differently from traditional conservation, in which control and management had been paramount, rewilding involves more hazard and experimentation – emphasising the autonomy and agency of nature (Holmes et al., 2020; Lorimer, 2015). So, while the Romanian team was focused on reintroduction, on the survival and growth of the bison population, and was perhaps less concerned with the ecosystem changes, the underlying philosophy of autonomy popularised by the rewilding paradigm provided a tool, good to think and speak with.
The hope of the Romanian team was that, once released, the bison would ‘reactivate their wild genes’, start foraging, disperse into the forest. But this did not happen in the first years of the reintroduction. The bison seemed to have another plan for survival. They stayed put, close to the hay feeding areas. Not bothered by human presence, they approached at the rattle of feeding buckets. They resembled tame furry cows, showing clear signs of habituation and dependence.
The survival rates were not encouraging. Calves died. The adult bulls died from fighting each other. Females died from disease. Also, feeding from a point source seemed to affect social relationships and to enhance the possibilities of marginalising individuals. As long as feed was artificially provided in one place, instead of being dispersed in the territory, it was possible for the older animals to exclude the younger ones to the point of starvation. The team confronted loss of bison every few months and were terrified. They felt responsible for the death of the animals and cried over them, struggling to understand what was happening. A project with high expectations looked like it was going to fail. Something was obviously wrong. The team thought the management after release needed to change, to become tougher.
Two years into the project (2016), the team decided on a switch in management towards a hands-off approach, more in line with the non-interventionist approach of rewilding. Seeking to ‘let natural processes happen’, they trusted the agency of bison to learn, to adapt, to fend for themselves. They did not approach the bison anymore with hay in their arms, but tiptoed around the bushes to glimpse respectfully. They understood that humans can set a path of no return towards dependency for this population. Evolutionary ideas, concepts such as natural selection and the survival of the fittest, provided an avenue of understanding what might work as a long-term plan. The new releasees were only given one month to acclimatise and then they were let free without supplementary food and without repeated checks – a ‘hard release’. This risky endeavour worked. Animals stayed away from the handling pens, calves were born, and the animals hiked for forage above 1,600 metres in altitude. Mortality rates reduced.
The agency of bison in exploring the territory, foraging, feeding, raising their babies, defending against predators (wolves and feral dogs) – was certainly recognised and celebrated by the humans. But, the same autonomy and agency of movement directed not towards the forest but in the opposite direction – towards the village – would become problematic. When, in the dead of winter, bison descended into the village, strolling on the frozen streets, hanging out near the school, rubbing their half-ton bodies against people’s fences and chewing on apple trees, intervention was deemed necessary. This kind of autonomy was not a reason to celebrate. Most villagers were curious and actually happy to see the bison in winter and feed them a bale of hay. They cared for the animals and welcomed the idea of having them in the area (more on this in Vasile, 2018). But the mayor firmly declared that the bison belongs to the forest and something should be done to put them back there. The rangers chased the bison for days on end, exhausting both themselves and the beasts, but to no avail. Bison were stubborn. Finally, they decided to tranquilise the animals and transport them high up in the forest. Despite hailing the hands-off approach, the humans still kept up barriers, enacting a long-rehearsed separation between them and wildlife.
In a more-than-human world, the free movement of wildlife means encounters, thoroughly infused with contingency. In the human world, such encounters are often seen as trespassing, clashes. Animals move beyond material and virtual boundaries, threatening anthropocentric structures in place for centuries. The ability of non-humans to inhabit landscapes in diverse ways is not yet a reason to celebrate. But can human-bison coexistence without intervention and control, with both species living as they please, even be remotely imagined as happening in present-day Europe? In species conservation, non-intervention is complicated in practice, despite being commended as a way of fostering non-human autonomy and agency. Conservationists involved in recovering species from extinction walk a fine and messy line, in which the threads of care and detachment are interwoven.
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