What Happened to European Bison?

European bison or the wisent is the only extant wild bovine species in Europe. For most Caucasian nations, the European bison was not only a hunted species, but personification of the power of nature, and as such it had traditional cult significance and was worshiped as one of the symbols of the motherland. The European bison is an integral part of woodland ecosystems in the Caucasus which forms the unique landscape of the region. Therefore, reestablishing its wild populations is one of the preconditions for restoring the natural ecosystems in woodlands.

The European bison disappeared from the wild because of human pressure, destruction of habitats (timber harvesting and burning of forests, and transformation of land for agriculture) and unlimited hunting. The last wild populations of the species were lost in the beginning of the XXth century. It took nearly 70 years of breeding – first in zoos and special breeding stations, then in the wild – in order to increase the number of animals from 52 (in 1927) to 3,418 (in 1993).

Russian experts started restoration of the bison extinct in the country in the late 1940s. There were 2 bison breeding stations established in Russia (in Oksky and Prioksko-Terrasny Nature Reserves), from where the surplus breed was distributed to different areas of historical distribution of the species in the Soviet Union. By 1991 there were 24 wild groups of the European bison in the USSR to the total number of 1,500 animals, including 569 bison in the territory of Russia. However, disorganization of environmental agencies in the 1990s led to uncontrolled poaching and by 1998 wild population of the European bison in Russia dropped by  three times to 185 animals.

This led to inclusion of the European bison into the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation as Category 1 species, Endangered.


What Do We Do for Bison?

In the late 1990s WWF Russia initiated development of the Strategy for Conservation of the European Bison in the Russian Federation. The Strategy provided for establishment of large free ranging populations (500 to 1,000 animals each) with a natural population structure, and prioritized territories for bison reintroduction, Caucasus being one of them.

In 2009 WWF Russia took the first practical steps to reestablishment of free ranging bison in the North Caucasus. In 2011 the Northern Caucasus Resorts OJSC and the World Wildlife Fund Russia signed Agreement of Cooperation in the field of nature conservation in the North Caucasus. The Agreement made it possible to bring and release into the wild groups of European bison in 2012 and 2013. Wide mass-media coverage of the bison release increased global awareness about restoration of the bison population.

Total 36 bison were brought in from different breeding stations of Russia. Currently there are two free ranging groups of the European bison in the Caucasus: one lives in the territory of the Tsey Nature Sanctuary in the North Ossetia, and another inhabits the Arkhyz site of the Teberdinsky Nature Reserve in the Karachay-Cherkessia.

In September 2012 WWF Russia and the Government of the North Ossetia signed an Agreement on Cooperation in the field of restoration of European bison population in the Republic. One of the the primary lines of activity is establishment of new group of bison in the Turmonsky Nature Sanctuary. To succeed in this and fulfill animal transportation veterinary requirements it is required to build an intermediate enclosure in the Turmonsky Nature Sanctuary to keep bison in quarantine in. The enclosure is to have area of 5 ha and fence of 2 m high. Optimum location of the enclosure has been selected by specialists already. Expected service life of the enclosure is 5 - 7 years, hence the fencing will be made of metal poles embed in concrete and chain-wire mesh. Currently allocation of the plot is being finalized.

Additionally, the Program for bison restoration in the North Ossetia - Alania is being finalized too. In addition to regulatory work, an ongoing activities are being implemented at the sites of bison release into the wild: severe climatic conditions (heavy snow in winter) at the Arkhyz site of the Teberdinsky Nature Reserve, the animals are supplementary fed during the cold season.