Europe’s Last Bison Pose a Question: What is Truly Natural?

courtesy of guardian.co.uk
by Damian Carrington

The bison in Poland’s Bialowieza forest dodged extinction due to a ‘trick of history’. But what would restoring a natural herd really mean?

“To feed or not to feed, that is the main question,” says scientist Tomasz Kaminski, as we stand a few dozen metres from Europe’s largest surviving animal. Through the trees, the huge chocolate-brown bison are nibbling at the first green shoots of spring, their breath steaming in the cool air.

Kaminski’s question is also the question which underpins the arguments over the whole Bialowieza forest. Put frankly, this last significant fragment of the primeval forest that originally covered all of lowland Europe looks a mess. Dead wood litters the ground, offending the foresters who think nature needs a helping hand to thrive but delighting ecologists who say this alien beauty is in fact what nature truly looks like. (There’s more on the Bialowieza forest itself in my longer piece.)

The bison, says Kaminski, are semi-natural but on the brink of being able to fend entirely for themselves. They live freely in summer. But in winter they are fed by rangers, taming the beasts to the extent that scientists have used CDs of tractor noise to attract them to an expected delivery of hay.

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