Bison could be the ‘natural firefighters’ we need to fight wildfires
Forest fires in Spain devastate on average nearly 100,000 hectares per year.
And the problem is only getting worse. In the southern region of Andalusia, the number of large fires – more than 50,000 hectares – has almost doubled in the past 40 years.
But unexpected help may be at hand – the European bison. Although the large herbivore died out in the Iberian Peninsula 10,000 years ago, its numbers have rebounded thanks to the work of the European Bison Conservation Center in Spain.
Founded in 2008 by veterinarian Fernando Morán, the center has helped reintroduce bison to several sites across the country. From an initial herd of 24, there are now 153 bison in Spain. The latest project is underway in a 1,000 hectare reserve in Andújar, Andalusia.
In this case, the aim is not only to reintroduce the animal, but also to study whether it can help reduce the risk of forest fires.
Bison are nature’s firefighters
Morán has obtained permission from the Andalusian regional government to conduct a year-long investigation into the role the bison can play in forest fire prevention by removing the scrubland and vegetation that feed the flames.
Bison are particularly well suited for this task – they can pierce dense undergrowth, they create patches of bare soil while wallowing, and they have a voracious appetite.
“One of the characteristics of the animal is that it eats wood, shrubs, bushes, tree vegetation, leaves, branches – all of which are combustible materials in our country,” explains Morán. “If no one eats it or cleans it, it is likely to burn. And what he does not eat, he breaks either by trampling on it or by breaking it with his head.
Plus, he’s doing it “on a large scale because it’s a very big animal,” says Morán.
This is where the European bison has an advantage over other grazing animals, such as sheep and goats. Weighing up to 1,000 kilograms, bison can pierce thick undergrowth that small herbivores cannot access. Most importantly, it eats up to 35 kilograms of vegetation in a single day – the equivalent of 12,500 kilograms per year.
“It’s a natural firefighter or a wild firefighter that nature has assigned,” he says.
The idea of bison grazing in modern Spain may sound new, but Morán says it was the norm for about 1.2 million years. Bison are even depicted in the 36,000-year-old cave paintings of the famous Spanish cave of Altamira.
Reintroducing the European bison, according to Morán, is a way to restore the natural balance that was lost when the species and other large herbivores, such as elephants, wild horses and rhinos, became extinct in the Iberian Peninsula.
“If you get rid of bison or large herbivores, you will only have forests and shrubs,” he says.
Rural exodus and climate change
Restoring this balance has become particularly urgent following the depopulation crisis in Spain. As more people move to cities, land previously used for agriculture and other activities has become overgrown, increasing the risk of forest fires.
“As rural areas are abandoned, there is an accumulation of combustible materials and this means that fires become more and more dangerous and more and more important”, explains Javier Madrigal, professor of forest management at the University. Polytechnic of Madrid.
According to a Greenpeace report, the fire-sensitive area in Spain is growing at an average rate of over 64,500 hectares per year.
This problem is compounded by climate change, which causes extreme weather conditions in Spain. The first five months of 2020 were hottest ever, as the number of heat waves has doubled over the past decade, according to the Spanish meteorological agency Aemet.
The combined impact of rural exodus and climate change is leading to “wildfires of unprecedented magnitude in Spain that increasingly resemble those in Australia and California,” says Madrigal.
The lack of forest management makes matters worse. More than 81.52% of the forested area Spain has no forestry regulations.
“On the one hand, there is a lack of planning, and on the other hand, a real lack of investment. Even if there are plans, in most cases they are not carried out, ”says Madrigal.
Morán believes that as “natural firefighters” the bison could fill this gap, doing the costly work typically done by “fire crews, huge machines, helicopters and planes.”
Madrigal, however, is more careful. If he says the project is “encouraging,” he thinks that is only part of the solution.
The problem of non-recognition
The investigation in Andujár has been going on for six months, and although it is too early to draw any conclusions, Morán says the first signs are positive. The animals – which were transported from Poland – adapted to the new climate and vegetation of Andalusia.
None got sick, and more promisingly, one of the females is pregnant – which would not have happened under adverse conditions.
The challenge now is to see how the animals will fare during the scorching Andalusian summer, where temperatures can reach 40 ° C in the shade.
If successful, Morán hopes to expand the project to more areas. But there is a catch.
The European bison has been extinct for so long that it is no longer considered an endangered species. There is no public funding for conservation projects, and since it is not recognized as a native animal, it cannot be released into the wild.
“Conservation is done in private,” explains Morán. “People are doing it because they want to, but there is no support.”
Poland and Romania are the only countries in the EU with a state conservation program, but Morán hopes that will change. In the meantime, he is working with environmentalists, politicians and scientists to secure the future of the species in Spain.
“When I wake up in the morning, I think there are a lot of people who stand up to be a burden on the planet, not because they want to, but because it’s their job. I like to think I wake up to do the opposite. “