A relic from a bygone era of European wilderness, the Făgăraș Mountains of Romania will be graced by the return of European bison this spring. Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) will be reintroducing 11 bison into the region, with the goal of eventually linking the reintroduced population with two other bison reintroduction sites in Romania and establishing a free-roaming and genetically viable population of grazing bison throughout the Carpathian Mountains.
Bison were rigorously hunted out of the Southern Carpathians around 200 years ago, but their reintroduction promises to revitalise the region’s biodiversity. Through grazing behaviour, bison create open forest areas and feeding grounds for smaller herbivores. Larger carnivores such as bear, wolf and lynx then profit from expanded hunting opportunities, while birds feed on insects attracted to bison manure. Bison also disperse the seeds of over 150 species of plants.
The move comes as the latest development in FCC’s mission to create a wilderness reserve in the Southern Carpathians. By purchasing small areas of privately owned land, the movement is attempting to reinstate high levels of protection for forests in the Făgăraș Mountains. ‘Many landowners sell their forests, usually to logging companies, which execute large scale logging. Close to 15,000 hectares have been felled in the Făgăraș Mountains – most of it illegally,’ says Adrian Aldea, a biologist at FCC. ‘Our vision is to have 12 per cent of the Romanian surface under National Park status, 30 per cent with a protected area status, and 50 per cent of the Carpathians protected as a biodiversity oasis and carbon sink in the long-term,’ says Adrian.
As a national symbol, many Romanians have maintained a near-spiritual connection with the bison. ‘The bison strikes a familiar tone with the Romanian people, and its return motivates them to view wild nature in a different way,’ says Bianca Stefanut, of WFF Romania, who have been reintroducting bison into the Southern Carpathians with Rewilding Europe since 2014. However, the reintroductions have met with some opposition from local hunting associations and farmers. WWF Romania and FCC are working to improve coexistence between local people and bison across their regions, by installing electric fences and repellents, and enlisting intervention groups of rangers and local volunteers.
Stefanut is confident that bison reintroductions will continue to diversify employment opportunities for local people. In the Vânători Neamț and the Țarcu Mountains, where bison reintroducitons have been taking place since 2012, the animals are already transforming economies through eco-tourism: ‘Over 100 families are involved in bison tracking activities in the Bison Hillock of the Țarcu Mountains, providing services from catering, to transport, to accommodation. Households have transformed their old hamlets into rustic Airbnb’s, they are growing more vegetables in greenhouses, and many locals are attending exchanges with other areas where eco-tourism is already blossoming,’ says Bianca.
By ensuring that locals are heard, conservation initiatives are confident that the bison can benefit both natural processes and rural communities. Bison silhouettes on the rolling hills of the Southern Carpathian Mountains could return an ancient wildness to the landscape, and with it, bring a more sustainable way of life.