Predicting potential European bison habitat across its former range


  • Corresponding Editor: N. T. Hobbs.


Habitat loss threatens large mammals worldwide, and their survival will depend on habitat in human-dominated landscapes. Conservation planners thus face the challenge to identify areas of least conflict with land use, yet broadscale species distribution models rarely incorporate real landscape patterns nor do they identify potential conservation conflicts. An excellent example of such conservation challenges is provided by European bison (Bison bonasus). Almost extinct by the early 20th century, bison can only survive in the wild if large metapopulations are established, but it is unclear where new herds can be reintroduced. Using European bison as an example we conducted a continental-scale habitat assessment based on real landscape patterns. Our specific aims here were to (1) map European bison habitat throughout the species' former range, (2) examine whether broadscale habitat suitability factors differ from previously reported fine-scale factors, and (3) assess where suitable habitat occurs in areas with low potential for conflict with land use. We assessed habitat suitability using herd range maps for all 36 free-ranging European bison herds as habitat use data. Habitat suitability maps were compared with maps of land cover, livestock density, agricultural constraints, and protected areas to assess potential conservation conflicts. Our models had high goodness of fit (AUC = 0.941), and we found abundant potential bison habitat. European bison prefer mosaic-type landscapes, with a preference for broad-leaved and mixed forests. European bison metapopulations do not appear to be limited by habitat availability. However, most potential habitat occurred outside protected areas and has substantial potential for conservation conflicts. The most promising areas for establishing large bison metapopulations all occur in Eastern Europe (i.e., the Carpathians, the Belarus–Ukraine borderlands, and several regions in European Russia). The future of European bison and that of other large mammals in the wild thus clearly lies in Eastern Europe, because habitat there is most abundant and least fragmented, and because the potential for conflict with land use is lower. More generally we suggest that broadscale habitat assessments that incorporate land use can be powerful tools for conservation planning and will be key if large herbivore and carnivore conservation is to succeed in a human-dominated world.