Bi­son, wild horses bring bio­di­ver­sity to ex-army base

The Saline Courier Weekend - - NEWS - By Karel Jan­icek AP Writer

MILOVICE, Czech Repub­lic — Wild horses, bi­son and other big-hoofed an­i­mals once roamed freely in much of Europe. Now they are trans­form­ing a for­mer mil­i­tary base out­side the Czech cap­i­tal in an am­bi­tious project to im­prove bio­di­ver­sity.

Where oc­cu­py­ing Soviet troops once held ex­er­cises, mas­sive bovines called tau­ros and other heavy beasts now munch on the in­va­sive plants that took over the base years ago.

The an­i­mals are turn­ing the for­mer Milovice mil­i­tary base 35 kilo­me­ters (22 miles) north­east of Prague into a minia­ture ver­sion of the steppe that once rolled across the Euro­pean con­ti­nent.

With some species wiped out in the wild, the an­i­mals now have the chance to live to­gether again in rel­a­tive free­dom. Con­ser­va­tion­ists de­ployed them at Milovice five years ago. Now they hope to en­large the sanc­tu­ary by one third to 360 hectares (890 acres) this year.

The an­i­mals’ task is to im­prove bio­di­ver­sity among lo­cal plants by eat­ing in­va­sive ones while sav­ing en­dan­gered species, said Dal­i­bor Dostal, the di­rec­tor of Euro­pean Wildlife, an or­ga­ni­za­tion be­hind the project.

“It’s a mirac­u­lous change,” Dostal said. “No­body ex­pected that the whole process would go ahead so fast and the area would change so much in just a few years.”

He said the large an­i­mals are as key to pre­serv­ing the ecosys­tem “as trees are for forests.”

David Storch, an en­vi­ron­ment pro­fes­sor at Prague’s Charles Uni­ver­sity who was not in­volved in the project, agreed. He said the project is “ab­so­lutely unique” be­cause it shows that na­ture can be pre­served not only by pro­tect­ing it from hu­man ac­tiv­i­ties but also by ac­tively shap­ing it with big-hoofed an­i­mals.

The selection of the an­i­mals was based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of con­ser­va­tion­ists in var­i­ous coun­tries.

Do­mes­tic an­i­mals such as sheep were ruled out be­cause they would feed on en­dan­gered plants as well. Me­chan­i­cal cut­ting of the in­va­sive plants was deemed too costly.

While in­va­sive grasses are a del­i­cacy for wild horses, Euro­pean bisons and tau­ros pre­fer bushes, cre­at­ing an ideal part­ner­ship.

The in­va­sive plants be­gan to grow after Soviet troops, who stayed on after the 1968 Soviet-led in­va­sion of thenczecho­slo­vakia, fi­nally with­drew from the base in 1991.

For­mer mil­i­tary bases are con­sid­ered places with great bio­di­ver­sity, the con­ser­va­tion­ists said, be­cause sol­diers’ ac­tiv­i­ties sim­u­lated the im­pacts of hoofed an­i­mals.

The Czech project in­cludes tau­ros that were trans­ferred from the Nether­lands, where a cross­breed­ing pro­gram aimed at com­ing close to the orig­i­nal species, the au­rochs, started in 2008. That wild an­ces­tor of to­day’s cat­tle be­came ex­tinct in the 17th cen­tury.

Wild horses were trans­ported from Bri­tain’s Ex­moor Na­tional Park, while Euro­pean bisons came from sev­eral re­serves in Poland.

The project now has herds of 27 Euro­pean bisons, 25 tau­ros and some 70 wild horses.

The an­i­mals move freely on the pas­tures on the for­mer mil­i­tary base year­round. With wa­ter sources avail­able, they are able to care for them­selves, even in win­ter.

The land­scape quickly saw signs of trans­for­ma­tion. Flow­ers started to dot the area as early as the sec­ond year of the project as the large her­bi­vores re­duced the tall, dense in­va­sive grasses. To­day, the whole area changes col­ors over the course of the year, de­pend­ing on what flow­ers are in bloom.

The most pre­cious is the star gen­tian, also known as a cross gen­tian. The blue flower is now flour­ish­ing at Milovice more than any­where else in the coun­try.

The for­mer base also has be­come abun­dant in other an­i­mals and in­sects. The Adonis blue, a but­ter­fly, has been spot­ted there for the first time since 1967.

“If we give na­ture a chance, if we give it time and space, it can take care of many things,” said Miloslav Jirku, a bi­ol­o­gist with the Czech Academy of Sciences who has been in­volved in the project from the start.

“At the very be­gin­ning, I thought that lots of species that used to be here in the 1990s would have to be re­turned ar­ti­fi­cially. To­day, a num­ber of them are al­ready here without us do­ing any­thing about it,” he said.

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