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Open Access From Reintroduction to Rewilding: Autonomy, Agency and the Messy Liberation of the European Bison

This article is Open Access under the terms of the Creative Commons CC BY licence.

In the age of the sixth extinction, human interventions to save endangered species have become bigger, bolder and costlier than ever. Yet, policies of species conservation have also favoured non-intervention, furthering the idea that humans have tampered too much with wildness and wilderness. This article examines a reintroduction of European Bison (Bison bonasus, also known as wisent) into the South-Western Carpathians of Romania in the 2010s. It compares it with longer-term recovery efforts in the Białowieża forest in Poland and reveals how interventions and non-interventions have been practised in the conservation history of this species. I trace the complexities of lived reintroduction processes, both contemporary and historical. I show that practices of recovering European bison have (slowly) shifted away from a controlling approach to reintroductions inspired by livestock breeding, and towards a hands-off rewilding approach. Yet, entangled human–wildlife histories, in which management has been paramount, challenge contemporary non-intervention rewilding paradigms that advocate for the autonomy and agency of wildlife. Reintroduction managers walk a fine line between intervention and relinquishment, care and containment, permanently recalibrating human–animal relationships.

Keywords: European bison; animal history; conservation history; extinction; reintroduction

Affiliations: Maastricht University

Appeared or available online: July 29, 2022

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