When a small herd of European bison is released in North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany soon, the animals will be the first wild bison to roam freely in Western Europe in nearly three centuries.
Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg is responsible for the reintroduction of the animals—also known as wisents. The prince owns more than 30,000 acres, much of it covered in Norwegian spruce and beech trees.
The release of the bull, five cows and two calves will fulfill a 10-year dream for the 78-year-old prince, who has a penchant for reintroducing wild animals.
However, not everyone in the area is equally thrilled. The aristocrat’s neighbors are concerned about what could happen if the animals move onto working farmland and—who will foot the bill if the animals damage property or injure someone.
According to the prince’s estate manager, Johannes Roehl, it’s unlikely the herd will roam far beyond its 220-acre enclosure.
The prince and his son, Prince Gustav, have already taken extensive measures to work with the local community and the government. They attended public hearings with “hundreds of people,” made extensive efforts to educate residents about their plans and petitioned for the necessary government approvals, according to NPR. The project will receive the equivalent of $1.6 million in government subsidies.
Although concerns remain, some local officials hope the wisents—who are slightly taller than their American cousins and can weigh up to a ton—will be good for the local economy. Bernd Fuhrmann, the mayor of Bad Berleburg, told NPR that he hopes the wisents will jump-start the village's tourist industry.
To help the herd grow, it will be important to keep the animals moving, Clayton B. Marlow, a professor of rangeland science and management at Montana State University, told NPR. That way, the animals will not destroy their habitat or become a nuisance to the community. U.S. wildlife managers faced similar issues when bison were re-introduced in the American West.
It will also be critical to ensure the bison don’t transmit diseases to local cattle, so the princes are working with Polish scientists at Warsaw University of Life sciences (home to the European bison registry) to make sure the wisents are healthy and genetically sound.
Ultimately, the princes aim to have 15 to 25 animals roaming the land.
This isn’t Prince Richard’s first attempt to bring back an animal to the region. His estate is also home to gray geese and ravens that he says he reintroduced at the request of the German government. You can also find red and roe deer, wild sheep and wild boar on his property.