Shifting Population Opens New Rangeland for Endangered Bison

european bison herd photo

Image credit: sedoglia/Flickr

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the demographics of eastern Europe have been shifting—populations across the region have become more urban and agricultural land use has declined dramatically. While this change presents challenges for mayors and urban planners, it is opening new opportunities for conservationists.

The latest beneficiary is the European bison—which desperately needs more open rangeland to preserve a genetically diverse and sustainable population.

european bison blue tongue photo

Image credit: Harlequeen/Flickr

Once common from central Russia to Spain, the European bison suffered from habitat loss and persistent hunting until, in the beginning of the 20th century, its population reached a low of just 54 individuals. Now, after a century of conservation and reintroduction programs, there are an estimated 2,600 wild bison living in scattered herds across the continent.

Though this rebound is impressive, the population is still vulnerable.

Tobias Kuemmerle, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies the bison, explains that, because the current population descended from just 12 individuals, it is genetically alike. It will take large herds, numbering at least 2,000 individuals each, he says, to rebuild a population with the genetic diversity necessary to survive.

Finding room on the cramped continent for such large groups of bison has been a challenge—until now.

Kuemmerle explained:

Eastern Europe is unique; it's had a massive change in the factors that drive land use...after the collapse of socialism, millions of acres of farmland were abandoned. Rural populations are declining, and the human pressure in some regions is decreasing.

In addition to this, some countries in the region, like the Czech Republic and Poland, have already begun bison conservation programs and are seeing positive results.

The situation, Kuemmerle commented, is a strange one for conservationists who have become accustomed to evaluating the impact of habitat degradation. He said:

This is very different from the situation that we usually study, where natural ecosystems disappear and biodiversity is lost. In eastern Europe, natural ecosystems in some areas are coming back as the farms disappear. It's a 'rewilding' process that brings a conservation opportunity to restore the populations of some of Europe's large mammals.

Still, the bison will not be able to rebuild their still-fragile population on their own. To ensure continued increase in genetic diversity, herds must be given room to expand, but also to roam. This will require, Kuemmerle says, the establishment of protected corridors and conservation plans that span international borders.

Read more about habitat conservation:
Old Quarries Going Back to Wild Habitat for Threatened Species
A Picture is Worth... Dude, Where's My Habitat?
Biofuels Threatening German Gummy Bear Habitat

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