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Wildlife Project Returns Bison to Ancestral Home

Habitat restoration comes in many forms, with no consensus on which one is the most effective. For example, restoring marine ecosystems like coral reefs requires a different approach than revitalizing any wooded area or prairie. Conservation methods can range from installing simulated versions of essential shelter for keystone species — using synthetic corals to restore a reef — to more nature-based approaches like planting different crops. 

One of the more exciting techniques gaining attention is rewilding. This style applies to an ecosystem harmed by the migration or regional endangerment of a species that once supported much of the local food chain.

In these situations, conservationists have begun an experimental treatment of reintroducing that once-missing species in the hope that its presence can restore the habitat to a healthy and thriving level.

Photo Courtesy Wildwood Trust

Environmentalists in the United Kingdom recently employed rewilding to restore a woodland area by Blean, a small village near Kent. The reported wildlife decline puzzled experts for years. Much of the trend is due to the generational effects of Britain turning the woods over to private timber companies during the Second World War. The excessive over-logging that followed led to a near-eradication of native trees. Their replacement with a non-native species proved to be less compatible with the needs of the remaining wildlife. The bison population dwindled and eventually left the area entirely. 

A collaboration between the People’s Postcode Lottery, the Wildwood Trust, and the Kent Wildlife Trust has placed a nearly $2 million bet that the bison’s return will pay off for its species’ survival and the health of the surrounding ecosystems. 

Called Wilder Blean, the initiative takes European bison, the former native regional species, and transports them back to the Blean woodlands. Officials say that if successful, the project will accomplish two primary objectives. The first is to grow the bison’s overall numbers — the species sits at just 7,500 worldwide. While the species was recently downgraded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the bison are not out of the woods. 

Transplanting is an especially effective tactic for species in these instances, as establishing separate regional herds reduces the need for inbreeding and improves the survivability of the overall gene pool.

“Because of the genetic bottleneck, we’ve got to be quite careful with them,” says Donovan Wright, a park ranger working on the project. “They were downgraded from “Vulnerable” to “Near Threatened” [IUCN Red List status] in 2020, but still need to be protected.”

Photo Courtesy Wildwood Trust

The second objective is to restore the health of Blean’s wooded area. The hope is that the natural activities of the bison — grazing, defecating nutrient-rich manure, and foraging for food — will slowly provide habitat upkeep, which has been missing since the species’ absence. One critical aim is for the bison to break down the non-native tree presence through its natural roaming process. It would pave the way for increased light exposure and other tertiary benefits. 

“They might ring-bark a tree, so it dies off, creating lovely standing dead wood,” says ranger Tom Gibbs. “Insects will bore into that, and you’ll have stag beetles, woodpeckers, bats, mosses, lichens, and fungus.”

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