Scientists worry cow who ‘chose freedom’ could corrupt vulnerable bison population

January 25, 2018

Since last November, the world has been following the tale of a Limousin cow that escaped from its owner and made itself at home with a herd of bison near Poland’s Bialowieza Forest. Now, some scientists are worried that if the cow breeds with the bison, it could contaminate the genetics of the vulnerable population.

The cow was first noticed living in the wild, having “chose freedom,” by an ornithologist in the area.

“It’s not unusual to see bison near the Bialowieza Forest, but one animal caught my eye,” he said. “It was a completely different light-brown shade from the rest of the herd.”

Then, this month, she was seen again by a biologist, who noted that although she stood out from the herd, the large numbers probably kept her safe from wolves living in the forest.

However, the biologist was concerned about what would happen if the cow become more fully integrated with her new friends — to the point where mating might happen, at least.

Only about 2,800 European bison, the largest land animal in Europe, exist today. About 600 of those live in Bialowieza Forest. If a cattle/bison hybrid (called a Żubroń) was introduced to the small population, the genetic makeup of the species could be permanently altered.

This is a big deal for a species that was once only a hair’s breadth from extinction. In the 20th century, the European bison population had dwindled after centuries of being hunted. After World War I, only nine bison from the Bialowieza group survived after the forest was occupied by soldiers who hunted the animals for food. These remaining animals were mostly taken to live in zoos, but were eventually reintroduced to the forest, where their numbers have continued to grow ever since.

The cow will most likely need to be recaptured before she becomes old enough to breed, the BBC reports.