A small herd of European bison will soon be released in Germany's most densely populated state, the first time in nearly three centuries that these bison — known as wisents — will roam freely in Western Europe.
The project is the brainchild of Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg. He owns more than 30,000 acres, much of it covered in Norwegian spruce and beech trees in North Rhine-Westphalia.
For the 78-year-old logging magnate, the planned April release of the bull, five cows and two calves will fulfill a decade-old dream.
But the aristocrat's neighbors aren't all thrilled about his plan to release wisents, which have been living in an enclosure on his property for three years. They are slightly taller than their American cousins and weigh up to a ton. Questions remain about who will foot the bill if the European bison damage property or injure someone.
"We were skeptical because we weren't given enough information," says Helmut Dreisbach, a cattle farmer and vice chairman of the Farmers' Association of Siegen-Wittgenstein. "How will the animals react? Will they stay in a particular area or will they move onto working farmland?"
The prince's estate manager, Johannes Roehl, says it's unlikely the small herd will move far beyond the 220-acre enclosure they currently live in. He adds that even if the animals do stray, they have vast swaths of uninhabited forestland to roam in.
Winning Over The Neighbors
Prince Richard blames much of the criticism on centuries-old rivalries between his Protestant family and Catholic neighbors.
Nevertheless, he and his son, Prince Gustav, say they realized the importance of winning over local residents. The younger prince says it was tough in the beginning.
"They made such trouble. I mean, there were public hearings with hundreds of people," the 44-year-old explains, adding, that the proponents "were nearly beaten up."
But the princes say most people have come around after extensive efforts to educate residents about their plans and their getting necessary government approvals.
The project receives the equivalent of $1.6 million in government subsidies, and local officials have put up street signs pointing tourists to a second wisent herd that Prince Richard has on display.
Bernd Fuhrmann, the mayor of Bad Berleburg, says he hopes the wisents will jump-start the village's flailing tourist industry.
"We know them from the old Western movies," he says. "My enthusiasm for these animals has grown. ... To experience them in the wild will be fascinating."
European bison are not the first animals Prince Richard has brought back to the region. His estate is rife with gray geese and ravens, which he says he reintroduced at the request of the German government. Herds of red and roe deer, as well as wild sheep and boar, also abound on his property.
Many of the animals on his land can be hunted, but others, like the bison, are off limits. Rows of antlers and horns hang on the prince's office wall.
Prince Richard says his passion for animals is one he's cultivated since his youth. It wasn't an easy childhood. He says American forces during World War II bombed his family home, adding a sarcastic, "Thank you very much."
After the war ended, Prince Richard says he and other youth would steal American soldiers' cigarettes for trade. He was shipped off to relatives in Sweden, where he developed his love for nature. He later studied forestry in college.
Prince Gustav says his father was determined to create animal-friendly habitats on their estate and enlisted his son's help.
"For 20 years we've been shoveling ponds," the younger prince says. "Now we both have bad backs. I think we shoveled tons of earth for fish and for the big black stork and for the kingfisher."
Hopes For Bigger Herd
In the U.S., efforts to reintroduce American bison have met with varying degrees of success. Clayton B. Marlow, a professor of rangeland science and management at Montana State University, warns that just as with American bison, keeping the German wisent herd moving will be paramount to ensuring it doesn't destroy habitat or become a nuisance to the community.
"We can't release either population onto a landscape and rub our hands with satisfaction and walk away," he says.
Ensuring they don't transmit diseases to local cattle or vice versa is also important, he adds.
The princes have been working closely with Polish scientists at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences to ensure the wisents are healthy and genetically sound.
That's where the official European bison registry is kept, showing that there are currently about 4,500 European bison in captivity.
Prince Gustav says the outcome they are hoping for is a herd or two of 15 to 25 animals. They and their project's managers will closely monitor the wisents and cull their numbers as needed.
"If it doesn't work we will have to take them away, but it will work," he says. "If we leave them alone it will work."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This month, a herd of European bison will be released into the wild in Germany's most populated state. It will be the first time in nearly three centuries that these animals are able to roam freely in Western Europe. The reintroduction of bison, which are taller but weigh less than their American cousins, is the work of an elderly German prince. It's one of several animal-related projects that have rattled his neighbors. NPR's Berlin correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson visited the prince and his bison on his vast estate in North Rhine-Westphalia and filed this report.
(SOUNDBITE OF SNORTING)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: European bison, or wisents as they are known here, weigh up to a ton and look a bit menacing. But in reality, they are shy creatures. The arrival of visitors sends this small herd into hiding inside their snow-covered, 220-acre enclosure here outside Bad Berleburg. The eight wisents blend in with the many Norwegian spruce trees here. Then they spot Jochen Born.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING)
NELSON: They gallop toward the 38-year-old bison ranger, then head for the oat mixture he pours into nearby troughs and eat with gusto.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEWING)
NELSON: Born smiles at the animals like a proud father. The estate manager, Johannes Roehl, says that the bison ranger bottle-fed some of the creatures when they were younger.
JOHANNES ROEHL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Roehl jokes that he sometimes checks to see whether the bison ranger has grown horns.
ROEHL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Born says the bison are thriving. He's the only one who has regular contact with these animals. Even those encounters have tapered off to encourage the wisents to stay away from humans. Born and others in the project believe the bull, five cows and two calves, won't be any trouble. They predict that even after the wisents are freed, they will stick close to their enclosure in this 30,000-acre, dense forest belonging to Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg.
The 78-year-old aristocrat runs one of the more lucrative logging operations in Germany. It was his idea to release the wisents into the forest around Bad Berleburg. His estate is full of wild herds, including red and roe deer, wild sheep and boar. His staff feeds them in the winter to keep them from seeking food in nearby towns. Many of the animals are hunted on Prince Richard's estate, although some species are off limits, as the free-roaming bison will be. His son, Prince Gustav, says they've also lured animals back to their area by creating natural habitats for them.
PRINCE GUSTAV: For 20 years, we've been shoveling ponds. Now, we both have a bad back. I think we shoveled tons of earth for fish and for the big black stork and for the king fisher. And that's fun to see when you have all that, what you can do with it.
NELSON: Father and son say the wisents, while small in number, are by far their most ambitious project. Prince Richard says he decided to reintroduce the creatures to Germany a decade ago.
PRINCE RICHARD: It was my idea to have wisents because they are very mild animals, because the minister of agriculture at that time said we were going to have wolves and lynx. And, I mean, in a country like Germany, 82 million people and a small country, sharing the nature with wolves? It's an absolutely impossible idea.
NELSON: The prince claims the rewilding of predators has done a lot of damage in Europe, but his neighbors were not crazy about having a herd of large bison roaming around, either. Cattle farmer Helmut Dreisbach is vice chairman of the local farmers' association.
HELMUT DREISBACH: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He asks: How are these animals going to act? Will they travel to our farms? Will farm workers be in danger? Who will pay if the bison damage property? Prince Richard attributes much of the criticism over his wisent project to age-old rivalries between his Protestant family and nearby Catholic communities. He adds that many of his neighbors also wrongly assume that the European bison will thunder across the countryside here like they do in American Western movies.
RICHARD: They compare them with your bisons. And people remember that you had hundreds of thousands of them, so they were scared stiff that there would be as many here.
NELSON: Prince Gustav says their herd will eventually have between 15 and 25 animals.
GUSTAV: This is going to be a little herd. Maybe the herd will split, and we will have two herds. We don't know.
NELSON: Father and son say they nevertheless realized the importance of winning over the locals and German government to their side and spent the better part of the last decade doing just that. Prince Gustav recalls the first meetings were tense and almost ended up in fistfights.
GUSTAV: There were politicians. And it was people from the tourism or people from the hotel business and restaurant business, they were all against it.
NELSON: Prince Gustav adds that these days, most people are on board. The German government has given its approval to the project, which has received the equivalent of $1.6 million in subsidies. Signs on area streets point drivers to an enclosure where Prince Richard keeps a herd of 14 wisents on public display. The princes have also worked closely with Polish scientists in charge of the European bison breeding registry to ensure the animals they are releasing are healthy and genetically sound. They say they also want to make sure they don't end up with too many bison as happened with their raven and grey goose projects.
JOCHEN BORN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Bison ranger Born says the calves that have been born here since then are now part of that registry. Their names begin with the letter combination Q-U, as will all future calves to identify them as part of Prince Richard's wisent line. Born adds the herd will be closely monitored and culled as needed after it is set free. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.