European Bison Return to Wild in Germany

PHOTO: European bison

For the first time since the 18th century, the European bison is returning to Germany to live in the wild. The wisent, as it is also known, has been brought to the country by a famous prince. Although the creatures' survival is uncertain, the project has already attracted considerable attention.

With nothing but spruce trees for entire square kilometers at a time, this managed forest isn't exactly what you would call a wilderness. Nevertheless, the forest, together with its ponds and meadows, provides shelter to many a rare species.

In the forest surrounding the town of Bad Berleburg, on the southern edge of North Rhine-Westphalia in western Germany, the lynx stalks its prey through the underbrush, the black stork breeds in the spring and the kingfisher engages in courtship rituals. And almost every day, even in rain or snow, and on Sundays, the aristocratic owner drives around in an SUV.

Wearing boots and work clothing, and always carrying a chainsaw on board, the nobleman keeps an eye on things on his estate. "It's part of it," says Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, 78, one of the most important forest owners in Germany. "People who own factories also have to go there every day," he explains.

Inspecting the forest is no trivial matter. The estate extends across many of the hills of the Rothaar Mountains, and usually as far as the eye can see. It measures about 13,000 hectares (32,124 acres, or 50 square miles), or roughly half the land area of Manhattan. On this particular day, the inspection wasn't entirely without incident, as is often the case.

"There was a spruce tree lying across the path," Prince Richard later reports at Bad Berleburg Castle, where his family has resided for more than 750 years. The SUV also slipped down an embankment and got stuck in the snow. "Shit," says His Highness. "And I didn't have any mobile phone reception, either."

But the afternoon was more successful. "I saw two female wild boars with 16 piglets," says the prince. Keeping an eye on his animals out in the forest is his hobby, he says. They include about 300 wild sheep, 400 red deer, 600 wild boar and so many roe deer that his seven foresters have concluded they are no longer countable.

The prince's daily trips into the forest are about to get a little more interesting.

Germany's First Wild Bison Since 1746

Since he hit upon the idea almost a decade ago, Prince Richard has been at the center of Germany's most interesting experiment in species conservation. Now the project, which receives about €1.5 million ($2 million) in government subsidies, is about to enter its critical phase.

The state Environment Ministry in Düsseldorf issued its approval shortly before Christmas, and over the next few days several men will drive into the forest and remove the fence around an acclimation enclosure in place since 2010. When that happens, a herd of eight European bison, or wisent, will be free to roam in the woods. It consists of an enormous bull, five cows and two calves.

But it will be some time before they have explored the expanse of the entire forest. Like most of the wild game, the wisents are fed grass silage at this time of the year, which makes them somewhat lethargic. They will be more interested in feeding before enjoying their newfound freedom.

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