Of Bison and Men

Bison hillock.jpg
The Bison Hillock

A couple of posts back I wrote about the introduction of the European Bison (wisent) to the forests of the Southern Carpathians, in Romania. This is part of a European push towards the rehabilitation of the species, and I explained in that post how the idea of rehabilitation is interestingly and questionably tied to ideas of purity. The effort of saving the wisent is thus predicated on a very classical conservation ideology, one that affords undeniable and unquestioned value to genetic integrity or purity. However, if we look beyond (or rather underneath) the pan-European species recovery effort, it becomes apparent that what individual projects actually do with the bison is far from the classic conservation paradigm, and perhaps pointing towards how the practice of conservation is changing. In this post I want to spend some time discussing the bison reintroduction in the Southern Carpathians, and situating it within wider debates as to the place and meaning of conservation today.

Let’s start there. One of the concepts that has, deservedly in my view, gained traction in both conservation and social scientific circles, is novel ecosystems. Nature is by definition dynamic, but the idea of calling an ecosystem novel tries to capture the dynamism of a place that is either directly or indirectly influenced by human activity. So a novel ecosystem is one that, due to human activity, is now formed of pieces that could not have come together otherwise. Once assembled under the spell of human influence (often unintentional), these ecosystems are able to develop on their own terms and in ways that, save for the initial human intervention, could not have arisen. So if we disappeared all of a sudden, there would still be a lot of novel ecosystems around.

One of the merits of this concept is to describe a state of affairs while remaining agnostic as to its merits. This allows one to think through different cases and judge them outside of the narrow confines of preconceived notions. It might be that some novel ecosystems, full of dreaded invasives and aliens, are good at providing certain ecosystem services, are beautiful and therapeutic, and help people connect to the natural world; they might become particularly meaningful places. However that may be, thinking of the natural world as full of novel ecosystems makes it possible to think certain human-nature entanglements anew, while restoring some measure of autonomy to the natural world. This is the general framework I want to keep in mind while discussing the reintroduction of the wisent.

Traditionally, reintroducing an animal would be part of an effort of restoration. To restore a place means to bring it back to how it used to be. In this effort, an accurate historical baseline is crucial, because unless we know what we want to restore something to, it is not much of a restoration. But over and beyond the ecological science of restoration, appealing to how something used to be has an undeniable emotional pull that helps projects gain acceptance. In a sense, restoration always claims to be righting a wrong. As you might notice, the idea of restoration is at odds with that of novel ecosystems, and in the case of the reintroduction of the bison to the Southern Carpathians, we see both ideas mixed despite their irreconcilable differences. The animals are placed in what is called their ancestral home, a clear reference to a time when they used to be there, naturally as it were. The implication is that, because they were once there, they can, and should, be there again. The ecological argument is that they are well adapted to an environment they used to live in. However, the Southern Carpathians, like any other place for that matter, is no longer the same place it was when the bison went extinct there, over 200 years ago. Land use patterns have changed, and global climate change is sure to affect the environment further. And just as importantly, the bison itself is not the same one that roamed the mountains, in two important respects: it is a lot more genetically impoverished, making it vulnerable to disease in a way that its ancestors could not have been, and it has not had a bison culture in a very long time.

This last point, I think, is particularly important, and I will return to it. What I want to point out here is that arguing for reintroducing the bison to the Southern Carpathians based on a restoration model is doomed to fail, both on restoration’s own terms (the replication of a baseline), and in terms of the novel ecosystem that the bison are part of and are themselves helping create. Indeed, besides the restoration argument, the project of reintroduction uses the rewilding argument, namely that the reinstatement of a keystone species will benefit both biodiversity in the area, and help change land-use from abandonment to economically productive but wildlife-based local activities. The rewilding idea, with its future-oriented ethos, is at odds with the restoration one, and the only way I can make sense of why rewilders would use a restoration argument is to point, again, to the emotional appeal of righting a wrong (also see this for a discussion of this kind of argument), hoping perhaps that the reality of creating something new would somehow be sweetened by an intrinsic connection to an imagined past.

The Southern Carpathians, with or without the bison, is a novel ecosystem. Understanding it through this frame allows us to hold the bison reintroduction project to different standards, and perhaps interrogate it more creatively. Looked at this way, what starts becoming apparent is that the people in charge of implementing the project on the ground are themselves experimenting with uncoupling conservation from strict baselines and animal reintroductions. Their work deserves further attention, and I want to mention some of the ways in which they are experimenting with and around the wisent.

The commune of Armeniș is the host of the bison, until the animals decide to wonder elsewhere. In any case, it is the first point of entry, the community that welcomes the wisent to its forests and meadows. The structure of the commune is very interesting. It is composed of five different villages, of which three settlements share, roughly speaking, the same population: the village of Armeniș, which is the newest one, built along the national road that connects it to the rest of the region; Sat Bătrân (literally, Old Village), placed on what is now a secondary road, following a river valley; and Plopu’, which is dispersed (as opposed to grouped together, like the other two) and consists of cottages traditionally used in the summertime, when domestic animals and their guardians would migrate up into the mountain. So most villagers of Armeniș actually have three homes, one in each settlement. However, Plopu’ is mostly abandoned, and there is a fascinating inter-generational mixed use of Armeniș and Sat Bătrân, both of which remain fully inhabited. The reason for the relative abandonment of Plopu’ is land-use change: people no longer migrate into the mountains like they used to, because they no longer live off of big animal herds. This structure bears mentioning because it gives an inkling of the local specificity, and the particular context in which non-human animals, hoofed or otherwise, also live.

Armeniș Village

The team leaders implementing the bison reintroduction project are very sensitive to the local context. They have spent a significant amount of time in the community, building relationships with anyone that wanted to collaborate, in one form or another, with the reintroduction process. What happened in this process is fascinating: instead of the project of reintroduction being about bison, strictly speaking, it is now composed of several sub-projects, none of which have anything directly to do with the animals themselves. For example, it turns out that the village of Feneș, part of the Armeniș commune (it shares an administrative region and therefore a mayor), has had its cultural center abandoned for some time. The team leaders found funds for remaking it into field laboratories and free of charge dormitories for students that want to do field-work in the area (not necessarily on bison). Similarly, some of the cottages of Plopu’ are targeted for restoration, to then be used as conference locations, or corporate retreats.


In the past, people of the region used to produce their own quicklime (calcium oxide, var in Romanian), for use on their walls. This particular material is very sought after in house restoration work, but is no longer produced by the villagers. One of the old stoves used for the job is part of a project that aims to reverse this cultural loss, by teaching newer generations how to make quicklime while repairing the traditional infrastructure needed for the job. None of these projects are about the wisent, though they share fundamental characteristics. For one, all of these diverse initiatives, the animal reintroduction included, are undertaken with strong local participation. The rangers taking care of and monitoring the bison are local guys, the owners of the Plopu’ cottages also, and so on. This is very important because it creates a sense of trust between the conservationists on the one hand, and members of the community on the other. In fact, it creates trust between conservation and local politics, by inserting the former into the latter unashamedly and transparently. This is best shown by how the community was initially approached about reintroducing bison on their land. One of the team leaders contacted the mayor and told him he wants to discuss an idea. Though they could have met privately, they decided to present the idea in the form of a town gathering. They did and, to the conservationist’s surprise, most people that showed up were immediately on board.

This kind of approach to conservation assumes that honestly involving people in the evolution of their home is not just a good in itself, but also a more pragmatic way of doing conservation. Whatever territory conservation policy targets, it is likely to also be someone’s home. This has traditionally been seen as a problem to overcome, whereas it might be a crucial way of structuring policy in ways that make sense. For example, the villagers of Armeniș are quite used to wild animals: bears and wolves are common in the area. Introducing bison there is therefore completely different than to any other place where people no longer have a cultural acceptance of big animals with a will of their own. Understanding this context means that the place of reintroduction is not just some ‘nature’ that happens to contain bison food, but rather a complex mosaic of nature-culture that, if taken into account, can pave the way for a spectacular come-back. A big, and unproven, assumption here is that social and environmental benefits can be married. This idea of mutual benefits is vigorously challenged by some (for example). In the case of Armeniș, one way to see it in practice is to look at the socio-economic condition of local inhabitants. By all means, they are not poor. As I mentioned already, they have multiple houses, built in the local style, which tends to be very big; they have land and animals, as well as agricultural equipment; and it seemed that most had cars. What they don’t have much of is cash. Knowing this, one way to make conservation stick is by coupling it with activities that might bring liquidity into the community. But there is no guarantee that, if successful, projects that bring more cash will not result in more anti-environmental behavior. However that may be, I find that this kind of experimentation should be welcomed as a way of both enlarging participation in conservation and trying, perhaps against the odds, to find a way of living that is not inherently destructive.

In the meantime, the bison are busy forming a community of their own (see this blog for updates on them). Because of the diverse history of each individual, dictated by the reality of the species – it has lived in captivity, its members unable to breed freely – the animals that find themselves in Armeniș have very little in common besides their genes (of which they have too many in common). This means that each individual brings with it a set of behaviors learned during their previous life, as it were, which they must transform in order to make sense of their new environment. This is a slow process, based on trial and error, collective learning, and communication with their human caretakers. The goal, for the humans at least, is to have independent bison. Currently, they are anything but, having had a culture of dependence replace whatever it is they once shared together. The problem of restoring a bison culture, or rather creating the conditions under which one can evolve anew, is as vexing as the problem of the relation between social and natural well-being. The people on the ground are aware of it, and trying creative ways of communicating with the bison, both in terms of encouraging them to be a bit more daring in their explorations, and setting firm boundaries around what the animals cannot do (for example, rampage through gardens). It is, on all sides, a case of ongoing experimentation.

The legend of the establishment of Armeniș goes something like this: a long long time ago, a nobleman lived in his castle together with his daughter, Armina. He lived for her, though she reminded him of his wife, who had tragically died in childbirth. As the girl grew, she became stunning, so much so that one day, as an evil spirit was passing by, he fell in love with her and went to her father to ask for her hand in marriage. The father didn’t agree, because the girl was already to be wed with a shepherd of the area. So the evil spirit transformed himself into an aurochs (bour in Romanian), threw her on his back, and attempted to kidnap the young woman. The shepherd and his dog gave chase and mortally wounded the aurochs with two well-placed arrows, after which the lovers were finally wed. The many children of Armina and the shepherd built a village that they called Armeniș, in honor of their mother, and all of the inhabitants became herders, in honor of their father. Where the aurochs fell to his knees and died, the place is to this day called “the aurochs’ trace” (urma de bour). Evidently, the people of the region understand their own history to be crucially tied to that of animals, and the places that conservationists have traditionally seen in ecological terms have deep mythological layers and profound meanings. For the local people, bour and zimbru were names used interchangeably for what is actually a bison, so the two animals, though distinct for ecologists, were for a long time one and the same in folk imagination. Partly because of this rich cultural natural history, the reintroduced bison were placed in an enclosure built on a hill, which the locals called măgura (the hillock). The sign pointing visitors to the reintroduction space cleverly points towards măgura zimbrilor, the bison’s hillock. The name stuck, because it fits seamlessly within a local toponymic tradition. In decades to come, it will be as if there had always been a bison’s hillock, going back further than memory, to when the slain aurochs kneeled to its death, a long long time ago.

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