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Where the buffalo roam

Grenfell prof gauges German opinion about free-ranging buffalo

Uwe Lindner, left, former project leader of the German bison project, and Grenfell professor Stephen Decker observe European bison on a reserve in Eriksberg, Sweden.

By Pamela Gill

It may sound like an odd endeavour for a prof in Newfoundland and Labrador to have undertaken: a study of public attitudes in Germany regarding the release of free-ranging European bison into the country’s natural environment.

Sir Wilfred Grenfell College’s Stephen Decker, a professor of sustainable resource management, is assessing the beliefs and attitudes of local residents regarding the reintroduction of European Bison (similar to American buffalo) in an area of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany.

“My research showed that attitudes regarding the reintroduction varied greatly by region,” says Prof. Decker, adding that the proposed restoration area spanned two counties.

“The northern county held very negative attitudes and was against the reintroduction while the county to the south strongly supported it. Based on these findings the reintroduction area has been restricted to only the ‘supportive’ region.”

The difference in attitudes can be attributed to land ownership – the land to the north is owned by many different owners, whereas the land to the south is owned by one person who rents to the people who live there.

“The social demographics of the people living in the counties were the same – same income, education levels and age structure,” says Prof. Decker. “The only difference is renting versus owning.”

This restoration effort is the first of its kind in Germany; so far eight bison have been introduced to the southern county and seem to be doing well in their new habitat. There are about 3,000 European bison remaining in the world today.
“Restoration projects like this are often promoted as a way to help increase the population and also raise the profile of the species’ Red List status,” says Prof. Decker. “This is also one of the first European large herbivore conservation efforts that considers the human dimension – local beliefs and attitudes – in a structured manner.”

As more bison are introduced in the south, Professor Decker’s research will provide a good basis from which to continue to monitor residents’ attitudes, address local concerns and build relationships between reintroduction managers and local interest groups.

“I am confident that reintroduction managers will continue to be mindful of the human dimensions of the reintroduction project and will work to build credibility and trust with local residents, including those in the northern county,” he says. “I am hopeful that such an approach may eventually lead to the bison reintroduction area expanding into the northern region as well.”

This research was funded by Memorial University, the German Federal Agency of Nature Conservation, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, the Large Herbivore Foundation, and Taurus Naturentwicklung e.V.

For more information about the European Bison project, visit­front_con­tent.php?idcat=2.