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Bison Don't Roam

From today's Wall Street Journal:

BIALOWIEZA, Poland -- Krzysztof Niedzialkowski is trying to teach Europe's largest land mammal, the bison, to become more European.

To keep the animals from extinction, Mr. Niedzialkowski, coordinator of the European Bison Program, is trying to change the migration patterns of about 400 lowland bison (Bison bonasus bonasus) roaming the primeval forest in northeastern Poland. He wants to persuade Polish bison to breed with other wild herds of the same species in neighboring Lithuania and Slovakia.


Edward Taylor
Bison in the forest of Bialowieza, Poland
To do that, the bison, which can weigh nearly 2,000 pounds, need to stop gathering in one large herd and eventually must learn new migration routes now possible with the expansion of the European Union. In this town of one-story wood houses on the edge of Bialowieza National Forest, Mr. Niedzialkowski runs a project to lay out trails of beets and hay -- food to coax the bison to take their first small steps beyond the forest and eventually, he hopes, across borders.

"It's not working very well," says Wolfgang Fremuth, a zoologist at the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which is helping to finance the project. "Bison are very lazy and they haven't understood where to go. It may take a couple of years for them to learn."

The feeding stations of "steering meals" set out by the rangers often don't last long since there's a good chance that elk, deer and wild boar will eat the bison's buffet. Data gathered from 20 bison with radio collars show that, so far, not a single one has managed to follow a planned 37-mile migration route between neighboring forests in Poland, Mr. Niedzialkowski says.

But the EU, together with Mr. Niedzialkowski's employer, Poland's Mammal Research Institute, and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, have put up more than $4 million as part of a four-year program starting last year to expand the bison's habitat and to teach the animals new routes. Zoologists like Mr. Fremuth are encouraged by new potential bison habitat such as the tracts of undeveloped forest from Romania and Bulgaria which joined the EU Jan. 1.

The European lowland bison and the American bison (Bison bison) both descend from an ancient ancestor in India, but have evolved separately and are seen as distinct species. Scientists believe that herds traveled north from India, into Siberia and eventually across the Bering land bridge into North America, while other herds headed west into the European forests.

As the EU has given more people a chance to travel freely within Europe, it has fenced in the bison. Poland tightened border controls with neighboring non-EU countries Ukraine and Belarus when it joined the EU in 2004. Conservationists in Poland say they want to keep the bison herd from Ukraine because, they say, the animals are in danger of being killed by poachers.


Bison watching rangers unload hay in Poland's Bialowieza National Forest
A fence blocks the bison from going to Belarus -- just a mile and a quarter from Bialowieza. That's particularly painful for Mr. Niedzialkowski because Belarus is home to a herd of about 300 bison, the descendants of the gift of a few Polish bison to Stalin in the 1960s, zoologists at Bialowieza National Park say. If he could breed his bison with the Belarusian bison, it would reduce the inbreeding that makes this rare species more susceptible to being wiped out by disease.

"But, for political reasons, that's not possible," Mr. Niedzialkowski says. "Since Poland left the Soviet bloc and became the outer border of the EU, the barriers were created."

Bison have roamed the forest of Bialowieza for hundreds of years. Russian czars hunted them here. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, locals hunted them for food and the bison disappeared. A concerted breeding effort coordinated by the Frankfurt Zoological Society took seven bison from zoos and reintroduced them into the forest in 1952, where they have since remained.

Bialowieza (pop. 1,500), which is just a four-hour drive from Warsaw, is crazy about bison. The local vodka, Zubrowka, is named for the Polish word for Bison, zubr. So are the town's hotel (also Zubrowka), the movie theater and local soccer team.

The 29-year-old Mr. Niedzialkowski moved to town in 2004 after graduating from Warsaw University with a degree in corporate law to be with his wife, a zoologist who was working here on a study of red deer. He hadn't planned to be running a conservation project. "When I speak to my student colleagues," he says, "they think I am crazy."

But Mr. Niedzialkowski says he was attracted by the fund raising that needed to be done for the bison conservation project. "I had lived all my life in Warsaw and I thought to myself if I want to do something else, it better be now or never," he says.

Mr. Niedzialkowski's team figured it would target young male bison, which are more willing to stray from the herd in search of females, and teach them to associate a particular direction with more food in hope that the rest of the herd will follow. If the bison can learn this new route, rangers hope they can teach them to move toward other wild herds in other European countries.


One spring morning, a red tractor pulled up to a barn in the heart of Bialowieza forest where four rangers loaded a trailer with bales of hay and beets. They drove off to a feeding spot in the woods, weaving among trees over the damp forest ground. As the rangers unloaded the trailer, about 50 dark brown animals, attracted by the noise of the tractor, slowly emerged from the dense woods to watch.

Rafal Kowalczyk, a zoologist at the Mammal Research Institute, had a tranquilizer rifle and radio collar with him. The team wants to collar as many bison as possible in order to track their movements. But Mr. Kowalczyk failed that morning to attach a radio collar to a large male bison because he was surrounded by large females.

Adding to the zoologists' problems was this year's mild winter. The snow cover in the forest lasted just a few weeks, and food was so plentiful, bison were less inclined to search for new sources laid out by the rangers, Mr. Fremuth, the zoologist, says.

Mr. Niedzialkowski is preparing maps of different routes the bison could take, called ecological corridors, and plans to propose building new feeding stations -- small barns to store hay -- along the routes. He is also considering planting an apple orchard on the edge of Bialowieza to lure the bison away from central feeding areas.

While the bison don't seem interested in international travel, about 40 of them wandered into the neighboring village of Zabrody, about five miles from the national park, and onto farmland belonging to Jan Skiepko, a white-haired mustachioed farmer who is also the local policeman. He didn't like it.

"They destroy young trees when they move in big groups," he said, standing in front of his farmhouse.

Still, Mr. Niedzialkowski hasn't given up hope. He tracked one collared male that broke with the Bialowieza herd and migrated about 125 miles toward Lithuania. He believes others could do the same. "This cannot be changed over night or in one step," he says. "We have to give it some time."

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Related news – Zubrowka sold in US will have plastic !!!! pieces of grass instead of the real thing. Evidently US FDA considers the grass to be a serious aphrodisiac.

Re: Bison Don't Roam

"Zubrowka sold in US will have plastic !!!! pieces of grass instead of the real thing."


Why?

Re: Bison Don't Roam

In the US they have all sorts of draconian rules on the import of foodstuffs from abroad. My friend once tried to bring some Bisto (gravy granules) for a cousin who had moved to the states from the UK. It was confiscated at the airport.

Re: Bison Don't Roam

But you really do have to keep pests out - especially those that like Bisto!