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Europe’s ‘Black Rhino’: The culling of Poland’s wild bison

  • Written by  Katie Stacey
  • Published in Wildlife
Europe’s ‘Black Rhino’: The culling of Poland’s wild bison (Image: Luke Massey)
17 Mar
The bison, Poland’s symbol of nature conservation, already faces controversial annual culling. But recently, the Polish government announced plans to increase culling of this last remnant of legendary megafauna, causing outrage among conservationists

It was in the heart of a bitter Polish winter that wildlife photographer Luke Massey and I arrived in Białowieża, one of the last remaining primeval forests of Europe, to 15 inches of snow carpeting the ground and temperatures hitting -25ºC. Białowieża, covers 1,500km2, of which 600 is in Poland, and with some segments of the forest believed to be over 11,000-years-old this immense range of primary forest was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. As you walk amongst the towering oaks and follow in the snowy footsteps of wolf and lynx it is easy to see why many scientists call Białowieża, ‘a window into the past’.

But astonishingly the Polish government recently granted permission for logging of this primeval forest and it’s not only Poland’s unique landscape that is undergoing ecological vandalism but also their forest’s most iconic inhabitants, the European bison which is also under threat.

At the Polish Academy of Science’s Mammal Research Institute in Białowieża, director Dr Rafal Kowalczyk has studied the bison for almost 15 years. He feels that the succession (grassland becoming forest) since the last postglacial period and increasing human pressure has forced the animal to seek refuge in forests. With the European bison still having a localised and low population, the animals have spurred the creation of the IUCN European Bison Specialist Group. The chair of this group, Professor Wanda Olech, explains that the bison’s preferred habitat is a ‘mosaic of forest and open spaces; meadows for feeding a third of the time and forests for ruminating and resting for the remaining two thirds.’

Herd of bison(Image: Luke Massey)

Winter is the perfect time for bison spotting. Despite males reaching almost 1,000kg they can be notoriously difficult to see, but during winter Europe’s largest terrestrial mammal strays from its forest habitat in search of food. Driving through the forest, every so often it opens up into snow-covered fields, each with a few haystacks dotted about. In the 16th to 17th century, villagers would collect hay from the meadows to sustain their cattle through the winter and the bison would join their domestic cousins to feast. With an almost guaranteed food source throughout these harsh seasons, the bison population began to increase and in 1700 a law was passed that actually required hay to be left out for the bison. Thus the supplementary feeding of these ancient beasts first began.

Later, in the 19th century, the forest was occupied by Russian tsars who would visit to hunt the boar, moose, deer and bison. Their need for more game to kill meant supplementary feeding was intensified further and the bison population grew larger still. However, during the First World War, German soldiers and locals who depended on the bison for survival hunted them to extirpation, leaving an unviable population. The last bison was recorded in the Białowieża forest in 1919.

Yet with a conservation mentality very much ahead of its time, Poland began captive breeding in 1927 using a collection of animals that had survived in captivity. In the 1950s, the European bison were released into the Białowieża forest. The reintroduction programme later extended to the rest of Eastern Europe.

European Bison(Image: Luke Massey)

Despite Poland now being home to the largest population of wild European bison, with a count of 1,374 free-ranging in 2015, Dr Kowalczyk believes they are not out of the woods just yet. ‘Their numbers still don’t match those of the black rhino, the “poster child” of endangered species – with 5,250 black rhino compared to only 4,009 European bison in the wild in 2015. And in 2015 only two black rhinos were hunted.’

Dr Kowalczyk feels that, in Poland at least, there has developed a negative image of the bison. ‘There are claims of too many bison, that the forest areas are over-run and that the bison are damaging local farms,’ he says. But all damage caused is recompensed by the state and even then only four per cent of all compensation paid for damage by protected species is as a result of bison activity. This is a similar amount to that which is paid out each year for wolf kills, while 90 per cent of payouts is as a result of beaver-related damage – from flooded meadows and tree felling.

The response to the idea that there are too many bison is to cull them – a type of management called ‘opinion-based’, as opposed to ‘science-based’ where decisions are made according to scientific evidence. Although commercial hunting of bison is not currently allowed by Polish law, a quick internet search for ‘Bison hunting Europe’ brings up several outfits offering hunters the chance to shoot wild bison in Poland.

Dr Kowalczyk opposes all forms of culling: ‘When talking about commercial culling of bison, Ukraine should be looked to as an example of it going wrong. In 1995 there were 660 bison there. In 2007 only 270 bison remained. This was a result of uncontrolled hunting and poaching and it shows how sensitive bison are.’

 MPR8440(Image: Luke Massey)

In 2016, over 20 bison were culled in Poland, most from commercial hunting, before media attention stopped the activity. In previous years that number was between 50 to 60 annually. Not only are bison protected by Polish law, they are also strictly protected by EU law and it is this culling which is causing a growing divide of opinion between scientists as to what is considered appropriate management techniques.

Professor Olech supports the Polish bison management model and thinks the results speak for themselves. She believes that the bison’s reproduction should be organised and favours commercial hunts (known elsewhere as trophy hunting), which she argues is ‘a method that if properly implemented can seriously help in special conservation.’

But Dr Kowalczyk counters that trophy hunting was developed for countries where the local community needed financial support and suggests that Poland, as a relatively rich country, should not require such trophy hunting: ‘If the argument is that an organised cull must be used to control a growing population of bison, or we feel the need to make some money by selling the right to kill this iconic and unique species, then either way there is something wrong with our system of nature conservation.’

In 2004 the IUCN published a status survey and conservation action plan for the European Bison which outlined that one of the biggest threats it faced was: ‘Inappropriate (traditional) forms of management, along with supplementary feeding during winter, which slow down the adaptation process of European bison into contemporary woodlands.’

Supplementary feeding has proven to sustain the bison through winter leading to a larger population, and with more bison there are now more calls to introduce culling as the area reaches its carrying capacity – and so the opinion-based management cycle continues.

 (Image: Luke Massey) (Image: Luke Massey)

The method of using culling as a management technique implies that care of the bison’s health has to be managed as if they were cattle or domestic animals. Culling ignores the fact that in natural populations of wild animals there will always be some animals in bad condition.

While in the field we had spotted some bulls who didn’t look to be in the best of health. Dr Kowalczyk explained that they were likely suffering from a necrotic disease in which their external sexual organs are suffering necrosis, leading to infection and eventual death of the individual. It is believed this disease spreads more easily at the communal feeding sites.

Also during our stay, four bison were reported dead – one from old age, two from sickness and one calf by wolf predation. Dr Kowalczyk states that ‘natural mortality is the best selection, because the weakest animals die and the best adapted survive.’

Studies show that a bison that has died of natural causes offers hundreds of kilograms of meat lasting up to three months, during which time over 40 species of bird and mammal, and thousands of necrophagous insects will feed on it.

Professor Olech argues that culling is designed to take out only those who no longer participate in reproduction, for example 14/15-year-old males and females. But as has been recorded in animal populations around the globe, older individuals in bison herds can still play an important role. As with elephants, for example, older female bison are often the leaders of the group, guiding the herd to traditional feeding grounds and protecting them from predators.

(Image: Luke Massey)(Image: Luke Massey)

The IUCN states that culling not only sick and suffering individuals, but also old animals that have ‘fulfilled their role in the population’ are techniques common in animal breeding and livestock sciences and are regarded as one of the greatest threats to species. Furthermore, those aren’t even the trophies that hunters will pay for. ‘When hunters hunt bison, they prefer to pay for a good trophy male, not for a cow or calf in bad condition,’ says Dr Kowalczyk.

He suggests that instead of culling, relocations and translocations should be implemented first, to sites where human interference can be reduced. He proposes using old military areas as ‘they are large, located in less populated areas and have a mosaic of open and forest patches.’

But Professor Olech and her supporters recently had an alternative suggestion given the green light by authorities. Later this year, ten bison will be introduced to Augustów Forest, an artificial coniferous forest in the northeast of Poland, where out of the 28,900 hectares of the selected area, open habitats cover only 0.5 per cent, this despite Professor Olech herself stating that bison need a good mix of habitat.

The bison will also be supplementary fed from November until March and once the population reaches 35 individuals, the surplus animals will be culled by way of commercial culling. But will the population grow a lot quicker through supplementary feeding as opposed to being left to graze naturally?

Professor Olech points out that ‘the bison population is growing by five per cent per year,’ but it seems that they do so as a strictly managed species as opposed to a wild one. Dr Kowalczyk is keen to encourage a shift of management focus towards locating suitable habitat and moving away from supplementary feeding. ‘The bison can be a truly wild animal,’ he says, ‘and if the conditions are right, they require very little human support.’

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