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This month, a herd of European bison will be released into the wild in Germany's most populated state. It will be the first time in nearly three centuries that these animals are able to roam freely in Western Europe. The reintroduction of bison, which are taller but weigh less than their American cousins, is the work of an elderly German prince. It's one of several animal-related projects that have rattled his neighbors. NPR's Berlin correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson visited the prince and his bison on his vast estate in North Rhine-Westphalia and filed this report.
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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: European bison, or wisents as they are known here, weigh up to a ton and look a bit menacing. But in reality, they are shy creatures. The arrival of visitors sends this small herd into hiding inside their snow-covered, 220-acre enclosure here outside Bad Berleburg. The eight wisents blend in with the many Norwegian spruce trees here. Then they spot Jochen Born.
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NELSON: They gallop toward the 38-year-old bison ranger, then head for the oat mixture he pours into nearby troughs and eat with gusto.
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NELSON: Born smiles at the animals like a proud father. The estate manager, Johannes Roehl, says that the bison ranger bottle-fed some of the creatures when they were younger.
JOHANNES ROEHL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Roehl jokes that he sometimes checks to see whether the bison ranger has grown horns.
ROEHL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Born says the bison are thriving. He's the only one who has regular contact with these animals. Even those encounters have tapered off to encourage the wisents to stay away from humans. Born and others in the project believe the bull, five cows and two calves, won't be any trouble. They predict that even after the wisents are freed, they will stick close to their enclosure in this 30,000-acre, dense forest belonging to Prince Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg.
The 78-year-old aristocrat runs one of the more lucrative logging operations in Germany. It was his idea to release the wisents into the forest around Bad Berleburg. His estate is full of wild herds, including red and roe deer, wild sheep and boar. His staff feeds them in the winter to keep them from seeking food in nearby towns. Many of the animals are hunted on Prince Richard's estate, although some species are off limits, as the free-roaming bison will be. His son, Prince Gustav, says they've also lured animals back to their area by creating natural habitats for them.
PRINCE GUSTAV: For 20 years, we've been shoveling ponds. Now, we both have a bad back. I think we shoveled tons of earth for fish and for the big black stork and for the king fisher. And that's fun to see when you have all that, what you can do with it.
NELSON: Father and son say the wisents, while small in number, are by far their most ambitious project. Prince Richard says he decided to reintroduce the creatures to Germany a decade ago.
PRINCE RICHARD: It was my idea to have wisents because they are very mild animals, because the minister of agriculture at that time said we were going to have wolves and lynx. And, I mean, in a country like Germany, 82 million people and a small country, sharing the nature with wolves? It's an absolutely impossible idea.
NELSON: The prince claims the rewilding of predators has done a lot of damage in Europe, but his neighbors were not crazy about having a herd of large bison roaming around, either. Cattle farmer Helmut Dreisbach is vice chairman of the local farmers' association.
HELMUT DREISBACH: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He asks: How are these animals going to act? Will they travel to our farms? Will farm workers be in danger? Who will pay if the bison damage property? Prince Richard attributes much of the criticism over his wisent project to age-old rivalries between his Protestant family and nearby Catholic communities. He adds that many of his neighbors also wrongly assume that the European bison will thunder across the countryside here like they do in American Western movies.
RICHARD: They compare them with your bisons. And people remember that you had hundreds of thousands of them, so they were scared stiff that there would be as many here.
NELSON: Prince Gustav says their herd will eventually have between 15 and 25 animals.
GUSTAV: This is going to be a little herd. Maybe the herd will split, and we will have two herds. We don't know.
NELSON: Father and son say they nevertheless realized the importance of winning over the locals and German government to their side and spent the better part of the last decade doing just that. Prince Gustav recalls the first meetings were tense and almost ended up in fistfights.
GUSTAV: There were politicians. And it was people from the tourism or people from the hotel business and restaurant business, they were all against it.
NELSON: Prince Gustav adds that these days, most people are on board. The German government has given its approval to the project, which has received the equivalent of $1.6 million in subsidies. Signs on area streets point drivers to an enclosure where Prince Richard keeps a herd of 14 wisents on public display. The princes have also worked closely with Polish scientists in charge of the European bison breeding registry to ensure the animals they are releasing are healthy and genetically sound. They say they also want to make sure they don't end up with too many bison as happened with their raven and grey goose projects.
JOCHEN BORN: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Bison ranger Born says the calves that have been born here since then are now part of that registry. Their names begin with the letter combination Q-U, as will all future calves to identify them as part of Prince Richard's wisent line. Born adds the herd will be closely monitored and culled as needed after it is set free. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.