The European bison Bison bonasus is an example of nearly extinct ‘charismatic megafauna’. The Białowieża Primeval Forest in Poland is among the few places where they still live in the wild. The management of this free-living herd has to reconcile to the conservation needs of a species and the economic and environmental objectives of their habitat: protected as well as commercial woodlands of Białowieża. Here we present a detailed account of the population development and analyse variation in vital rates based on monitoring that started in 1952 and continued until 2002. The population was allowed to grow freely until 1970, when removal started with the aim to stabilize population size. We found that recruitment rate, but not mortality, was density dependent, suggesting that the population density was not very high relative to resource levels. Winters with much snow and cold temperature had a strong negative effect on survival. May temperature of the previous year positively affected recruitment rates. Masting (oak seed) also positively affected recruitment rates, which provides a rare account of masting affecting the performance of a large ruminant. Sex ratio of offspring was even and was not strongly affected by density or climate. We use an age-structured matrix model to show how this knowledge of intrinsic and extrinsic factors affecting vital rates may help managerial decisions by providing explicit links between given environmental conditions and the population growth rates.