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Europe Reintroduces Its Own Brand of Bison, Also Driven to Near Extinction

The European bison, or wisent, is being reintroduced about a dozen at a time into the wild.
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Amid all the bison buzz on Turtle Island, what with the National Bison Legacy Act having passed both houses of Congress and currently sitting on President Barack Obama’s desk, a lesser-known but parallel phenomenon is happening across the Pond.

European bison, known as wisent, were nearly wiped out in the early 20th century as they were mercilessly hunted and their habitat destroyed, according to the True Nature Foundation, a conservation group based in the Netherlands. Merely 3,000 or so survive today, most of them in captivity. But a new movement called Rewilding Europe is aiming to restore bison populations to their original range.

Eleven wisent were released into the Netherlands in March, according to National Geographic. During the last week of April. another 12 were released into Valdeserrillas nature reserve in Spain, in what the True Nature Foundation said was the largest bison reintroduction ever in Western Europe. It was a collaboration between True Nature and the European Bison breeding program of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA).

Seven of the wisent arrived early last week from Fota Wildlife Park in Ireland, the foundation said. Five more came from Howletts Wild Animal Park and Port Lympne Reserve in the United Kingdom on April 29. The Aspinall Foundation enabled the transport of the animals to from the UK to Spain, the foundation said.

“There are whole swathes of the European continent that were once the realm of the bison, and these latest exports from key members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s European Bison breeding program, the European Bison EEP, are a step towards repopulating the western limit of the species’ historical range,” said Douglas M Richardson, EAZA’s European Bison EEP coordinator, in a statement.

“We are delighted to be part of this rewilding initiative in Spain,” said Aspinall Foundation Chairman Damian Aspinall. “This is what real conservation is all about. Successfully breeding vulnerable and endangered animals in captivity is of no use, unless those animals can eventually be returned to the wild–where they belong.”

Plans are afoot to release even more bison into the wild next year throughout Spain and Europe, with the goal of “reinstating European ecosystems to their original and complete state,” said True Nature Foundation Chairman Henri Kerkdijk-Otten in the statement. “We hope it will mark the start of a fruitful, and long-lasting, cooperation between all the organizations involved in the breeding of the European bison.”

As it is on Turtle Island, “the bison is a majestic symbol of Europe’s wilderness,” said Tony King, of the Aspinall Foundation. “We are delighted that The Aspinall Foundation is helping bring it back to the Valdeserrillas Reserve. We will be following the bison closely as they discover their newfound freedom.”