European Bison Return to Wild in Germany

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"We are a commercial forestry operation," says Röhl in his office, where the walls are decorated with the antlers of bucks he shot, and where Ginny, his hunting dog, is lying in her basket. "With this project, we want to show that we can be active in species conservation while simultaneously running a forestry operation, one that supports the prince's family, the castle and 70 employees." It does wonders for the reputation of a commercial private forestry operation, says Röhl. "After all, we're commonly viewed as plantation owners." A Town Warms to the Idea

When Bernd Fuhrmann became the mayor of Bad Berleburg, a city of 20,000 people, he promptly paid a visit to the prince. On that evening in the castle, in late 2004, Fuhrmann, 47, was also told about the plan. He was perplexed. "Bison, now aren't they the ones you see in Westerns?" he thought to himself. "It wasn't the sort of project that I would have welcomed right away."

But he eventually warmed to the idea. Since the demise of the German health spa industry, Bad Berleburg has seen a decline in visitors, bars, jobs and residents. Not much grows there, aside from trees. The soil is poor and it rains a lot. It was clear to Fuhrmann that what the city needed was "something with charisma." Why not the European bison?

The ancestors of the town's residents were once the subjects of the prince's ancestors, and now they also proved to be compliant. "They didn't say much here in the area," says Prince Richard, "but they did over there." He's talking about the land beyond his estate, where people live to whom the prince refers as the "Köllschem" or "Cologne types." And they, typically enough, were completely opposed to the idea.

From the perspective of local residents, the ridge of the Rothaar Mountains divides the world into two halves. On the Bad Berleburg side is an area known as the Wittgensteiner Land, where the people are staunchly Protestant and speak an Upper Hessian dialect, and the economy is ailing. On the other side is the High Sauerland region, which has a growing tourism industry and a deeply Catholic population that speaks a Low German dialect similar to the dialect spoken in Cologne, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) to the west. For centuries, the two neighboring populations have been about as partial to each other as the residents of Cologne and Düsseldorf (neighboring Rhineland cities that are notorious for their antagonism towards each other), which is to say that the wisent was being released between two somewhat antagonistic fronts.

'People Were on the Verge of Fistfights'

The forestry director and the mayor embarked on a few peace missions to the Köllsche region, but their efforts were in vain. Tourists would be afraid to go into the forest, the opponents grumbled, adding that wisent bulls would mount dairy cows and father wisent and dairy cattle hybrids, and the herds would severely damage the forest with their hooves. Tempers were running so high that "people were on the verge of fistfights," says Röhl. He almost gave up.

The wisent supporters also encountered official skepticism. The state Environment Ministry in Düsseldorf eventually put together a list of 60 questions to study the potential dangers posed by the wisents. It took scientists from four universities more than four years to come up with the answers.

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