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  • Writer's pictureVadim Sidorovich

Bison in Naliboki Forest: past and present

Bison herd, the Pawnochbnaye Wiunishcha locality, the central part of Naliboki Forest, 2014.

Historically in Naliboki Forest the European bison was the most valuable hunting animal, which had been hunted regularly until the middle of the 17th century. Within the biggest part of Naliboki Forest, which was owned by the magnate family of Radzivils, hunting on bisons was conducted only for the family and their noble guests. Similar situation was going on in the rest part of the former Naliboki Forest that belonged to other magnates. In the first half of the 17th century bisons were still hunted on horseback with cold steel, namely with heavy spears, much lighter darts, with broadswords and heavier swords. A great help in that sort of hunting was assisted by mounted and non-mounted archers, also by foot-mobile hunters with fire weapon. Over time, with the improvement of fire gun, it displaced thrust weapon more and more often in bison hunting. The last bison hunting in Naliboki Forest in the middle of 17th century was carried out in bison habitat as a battue drive-hunt. Many chasers, mainly of peasantry origin, turned bisons out of the forest depths to the places of magnate shooters’ location. Heavily wounded bisons could be finished off by cold steel. Sometimes poaching on bisons was registered, which was usually carried out with the help of trapping pits. That trapping pit was dug in a suitable place, camouflaged with plants, and nearby an aspen tree was cut down, as it was bison favorite delicacy.

Hunting on bison horseback with cold steel, namely with heavy spears, mid 17th century. Drawing by Aliaksandr Mitsianin.
Pulling of hunted bison by peasants under the control of straliets, late 16th century. Drawing by Aliaksandr Mitsianin.

During the heavy wars from the middle of 17th century to the first half of 18th century the bison population in Naliboki Forest was basically exterminated with the purpose of meat foraging by military cohorts of all the origins, i.e. Lithuanian, Polish and Russian. For this reason, the bison nearly stopped to be mentioned in archival documents of the end of 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time, there is no doubt that in this period some bison herds in Naliboki Forest. As to bison it is worthwhile to notice that Naliboki Forest through the Nioman forest corridor, then Lipishchany Forest, Slonim Forest and Ruzhany Forest joined Bialowieza Forest, where bisons did not vanished until the early 20th century. The distance of such forest passage was 170-240 km, that was possible for the bisons, especially for large single males. Even in the mid 1980s one of the old inhabitants in the Asovyia hamlet of the Navahradak district (at that time I had no idea about such a book I would do and, therefore, did not write down his name) told me that his grandfather had narrated that somewhere in the 1880s-1890s in the forest vastness at the confluence of the Nioman and Biarezina rivers a large single bison appeared and lived there the whole winter and spring, and then disappeared.

Restoration of the bison population in Naliboki Forest was started in February 1994, when 15 individuals (5 males and 10 females) were translocated from the Belaviezha Forest to the specially prepared husbandry in the locality of Pawnochnaje Wiunishcha of Naliboki Forest (Kozlo & Bunevich, 2011). That action in Naliboki Forest was provided by the forestry service of the Valozhyn district. At first, the bisons were released in the enclosure of about 6 ha, where they overwintered successfully, being provided with food. On the photo you see the group of workers, who looked after the first bisons that time.

The first bison-wardens in Naliboki Forest: from left to right Andrej Shmyk, Ryhor Virshych, Aliaksandr Rubatskij and Jury Rudovich. The Tsiakava locality, the central part of Naliboki Forest, 1994. Photo from the collection by Aliaksandr Kazarez.

The bisons were released from the enclosure in May 1994, while the enclosure was transformed into a winter feeding station for the bisons and their offspring. During the winter of 2014-2015 in Naliboki Forest on the area about 2700 square km 66 bisons were censused by us, while the estimate done by the local wildlife guards and hunting wardens was about 90 individuals.

Large herd of bisons, the Bielakorats locality, the central-northern part of Naliboki Forest, 2019.

Then during the next five years there was observed the evident increase in the local bison population. After 2015 we did not census bisons in Naliboki Forest anymore. However, we still know more or less the species distribution there. In 2019-2020 there were about 100 bisons. Mainly these bisons were situated in two areas: the Nizki Bor - Tsiakuchaje - Bielakorats - Jatskava - Pawnochnaje Wiunishcha - Kupalishcha - Masty - Dowhi Bor - Zapruddzie - Zabalats’ localities in the central north and central parts of the forest (approximately 50 inds); and in the localities of Shubin - Kliatsishcha - Kryvukha - Pawdniovaje Wiunishcha - Barki - Kurhany - Svistunova Hrada - Junitsa - Kukhnja in the central and central-southern parts of the forest (25-30 inds). Also, 7-12 bisons were regularly registered at Vuhly village in the north-eastern part of Naliboki Forest, and more or less the same number of them in the localities of S’viaty Kalodziezh-Halianiova - Khmielishcha - Chornaje - Krasny Bor in its south-eastern part. In 2019 few bison appeared in the Rabachova and Kazialets localities in the south-western part of Naliboki Forest.

Concerning to the registered increase in bisons in Naliboki Forest after 2015, two main factors may be mentioned that favoured the species. First, really sufficient protection of bison by the workers of the Nalibotski reserve, and the second one is quite mild winters.

One interesting feature of the bison ecology in Naliboki Forest that connected with artificial feeding of them should be mentioned. Big amount of food in the two feeding stations in the Pawnochnaye Wiunishcha locality was stopped spreading in the winter of 2007-2008. In the presented distribution maps of bisons in Naliboki Forest you see the respective considerable change in the spatial structure of the species local population. Instead a large herding in the surrounding of the feeding stations, what was observed nearly year-round, after the stop of artificial feeding in the winter of 2007-2008 bisons tended creating relatively small herds and spreading largely in the whole terrain of Naliboki Forest.

Results of bison census conducted in Naliboki Forest (2750 km2) in the winter 2002-2003 (upper left map); in the winter 2006-2007 (upper right map); in December 2007 (lower left map); in February 2008 (lower right map).

. The bison population grew until the harsh winter of 2012-2013 that characterizes by too deep and sticky snow cover with several layers of thin ice. During this really too harsh winter the bison population was markedly reduced (the next winter it appeared about 12 inds fewer despite of some reproduction) that had happened, perhaps, due to dying of them from starvation and far emigrating to a rural terrain (for instance, small bison herd was registered in the mostly rural terrain at the Ataliez’ village already quite faraway outside of Naliboki Forest). The next two rather mild winters were even worse for the bison population, because in the conditions of the weak ice over the numerous drainage canals, perhaps, quite many of them died getting stuck in the cold water and mud of eutrophicated canals, while trying to cross them by ice. Once there were rescued three of them in such a situation in the Krasnaya Horka locality in the late February of 2015 (see the photos). As far as we know, five other bisons died like that before. Bones and other remains of the bisons were found in canal’s mud by the local wildlife wardens, road builders and me as well in the localities of Pawnochnaje Wiunishcha, Zabalats’ and Navusts’. Perhaps in the effect, the estimated number of bisons decreased up to 66 inds to the winter 2014-2015.

Bisons in mud of the eutrophicated canal, the Krasnaya Horka locality, the central part of Naliboki Forest, February of 2015.

Bison bull carcass, the Jatskava locality, the central-northern part of Naliboki Forest, 2020. In Naliboki Forest in March 2020 there was discovered carcass of big bull bison. It looked like the bison died 7-10 days ago. The body was not starved, the carcass condition suggested that it was a healthy bull. Neither wolf nor brown bear nor lynx touched the carcass. Nevertheless the big piece of skin on the belly was torn. That skin was open by horn plausibly, but not by canines of a large carnivore. Over the torn skin there was large hematoma that could appear due to strong heat by head of another bull bison. Therefore, it is likely to say that the bull bison was killed by another one.

Here it is worthwhile to notice that according to camera-trapping results and numerous visual observations bison particularly adult males fight quite often. While fighting, if one bison tears much skin or open belly of another bison, there is not much hope that such an injured bison will survive.

Concerning possible predation of wolves on bisons, a lot of snowtraking of wolves (about 1700 km in 1999-2014) that was conducted in Naliboki Forest in the habitats of bisons suggests that wolves even do not evaluate them as possible prey. We have never registered a real chasing of bisons by wolves (even by the wolf packs of 8-11 inds). Facing with fresh tracks of a bison herd, wolves almost do not follow the trail (never seen such a following longer than about 100 meters). In relation to the question it is noteworthy to notice that, at least, during 2011-2015 in the localities of Krasnaya Horka and Barki the badly limping male bison persisted alone and it was out of any herd. Nevertheless, wolves that were always common in the localities all the time did not kill it.

With the respect of all the above, the consideration by the local wildlife guards and hunting wardens that in the Pawnochnaje Wiunishcha locality in February 2015 wolves predated a bison evidently does not reflect the actual situation (http://wildlife. by/node/34097). Moreover, according to the photos represented by them in the web-publication, they have discovered the bison carcass that was eaten by scavengers (red fox, raccoon dog, wolf etc.), at least, for two weeks (it looks merely like that). Furthermore, on the photo of the bison carcass there is the big hole in the canal ice behind the carcass. Plausibly, the bison, while crossing the canal, broke the too weak ice and got stuck in the canal mud, then it died from hypothermia there. Wolves found the carcass, pooled it out, and began consuming it. Such a version looks more realistic.

Such grassland on abandoned drained land having a mixture of dry meadows and grassy marshes is a typical habitat of bison in the warm season, the Pawnochnaje Wiunishcha locality, the central part of Naliboki Forest, 2015.

Rubbing is so common behavior in bison year-round, particularly during summer, when there are many gnat, the Barki and Hraznae Balota localities, the southern and central parts of Naliboki Forest, 2016-2018.

Grooming of bisons on open sand in Naliboki Forest, 2015-2019.

Bisons drink quite a lot of water, the Hraznaje Balota locality, the central part of Naliboki Forest, 2018.

Bisons used stable pathways to cross drainage canals and rivers. Nearby such water-crossing pathways they usually groom in water, The Junitsa locality, the central part of Naliboki Forest, 2019.

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