Of Wolves, Bisons and Deportation. Wild Bieszczady Mountains

We’ve recently come back from the Bieszczady Mountains, a mountain range that runs from the extreme south-east of Poland through Ukraine and Slovakia, and is part of the Outer Eastern Carpathians. For those who believe that not much wilderness remains in Europe, then I warmly recommend a visit to these places. Bears, big packs of wolves and herds of free-ranging bisons, all can be encountered in the forests and meadow in the area, as long as one is willing to get up before the birds and wait patiently in one of the little wood hunting towers spread in the area.

Observing the wilderness, however, was not the only reason why us, the Conservation Biogeography Lab  took our students there. Indeed, the Bieszczady Mts are a great place to get some hands-on experience on how to collect field data in biogeography, as this is the core of the Field Methods in Biogeography class, taught yearly by Prof. Tobias Kuemmerle and Laura Kehoe.

What’s impressive about the Bieszczady Mts is how they put you in touch with both Nature and History, and how the two combined into a great land-use science experiment.

Prof. Tobias Kuemmerle showing the students about the virtues of dear, old Telemetry in these times of GPS and cellphones

The area witnessed an unprecedented, unintended and dramatic large-scale experiment of ‘Rewilderness’ during the 20th century, as a result of the controversial political history of the region. Once a lively center of agriculture and commerce during the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Bieszczady region experienced the dramatic consequences of historic overturnings which led in the 20th century to an almost complete depopulation of the area. For instance, the population of little towns like Lutowiska, having as many as 23,000 inhabitants in 1931, dropped as low as the current 1,000 inhabitants. The consequences of these events are striking and still clearly visible nowadays, not only as remnants of abandoned farms and village, now overgrown with vegetation, but even at the broader scale of the overall landscape (see for instance Kuemmerle et al. 2008).

The striking difference in land-use between the Polish (left) and the Ukrainian (right) Part of the Bieszczady Mts.

A first wave of depopulation started in 1939, after the joint aggression of Poland from both the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The river San (close to the current border between Poland and Ukraine), was designed as the border between the two invading countries, according to the Ribbentrop-Molotow pact. Military and political actions resulted in a dramatic  depopulation of the area: evacuation of German ethnics, deportation of Polish people and extermination of Jewish. The end of the war did not bear peace and prosperity to the Bieszaczady region. The new Polish-Soviet border crossed the area, and again the inhabitants of the region experienced deportations, relocations and expulsions. The forced resettlement of the Ukrainian minority during the Operation Vistula (1947), with the aim of removing material support and assistance to the Ukrainian nationalist insurgents, is the most famous of these set of actions which led to the complete or partial depopulation of the Bieszczady region. Economic depression, emigration and land abandonment did the rest ion the following years (Augustyn, 2004).

Depopulation turned the Bieszczady region into a barren, desolated area. Nature, however, took its course. Forest expanded on former arable land, and animals reclaimed the valleys, meadows and hills once inhabited by man. When it comes to land-use, the contrast with the region on the other side of border with Ukraine is so stark, that it really represents a major experiment (although tragic) of rewilderness in the very heart of Europe. Now the Bieszczady host some of Europe’s last remaining primeval forests (estimated as occupying as much as 7.6% of the forest area in the National Park, source Kucharzyk). For instance, large segments of these forests are in the upper sections of the stream Górna Solinka, as well as in the north-west part of the Park, in remote and inaccessible sites in the upper ranges of mountain valley streams, as in the case of Hylaty and Wołosatka (Kucharzyk, Przybylska 1997). Bison, which was reintroduced in the area in 1963, now reached a population of a few hundreds of individuals, living in different herds in various parts of the range, and maintaining a contact with a herd of about 20 animals at the Slovak side of the border.

In 1973 the Bieszczady National Park was founded, and successively enlarged four times until 1999, so that it covers now around 29,000 ha. In 1992, the Polish–Slovakian biosphere reserve was designated consisting of Bieszczady National Park, two landscape parks (San Valley and Cisniansko-Wetlinski inPoland), and the Poloniny National Park in Slovakia. The biosphere reserve was transformed into the trilateral East Carpathians Biosphere Reserve when the Ukrainian Nadsanski Landscape Park (founded in 1997) and the Uzhanski National Park were joined in 1999. Altogether, the East Carpathian Biosphere Reserve covers an area of 213 000 ha (53% in Poland, 19% in Slovakia, and 28% in Ukraine) (from Kuemmerle et al. 2007).

Morning encounters in the Bieszczady Mts

Not to mention, the primeval and old-growth forests of the area are being included in the map of primary forests of Europe we are preparing for FORESTS and CO. Thanks again for the support to our Polish partners from the University of Agriculture and Jagellonian University in Krakow!

One of the several hunting towers which can be found in the area.

Cited Literature

Augustyn, M. (2004). Anthropogenic changes in the environmental parameters of Bieszczady Mountains. Biosphere conservation: for nature, wildlife, and humans, 6(1), 43-53.

Kucharzyk S., Przybylska K. 1997: Skład gatunkowy i struktura drzewostanów w Bieszczadzkim Parku Narodowym oraz monitoring tendencji dynamicznych. Rocz. Bieszcz. 6: 147 – 175 .

Kuemmerle, T., Hostert, P., Radeloff, V. C., Perzanowski, K., & Kruhlov, I. (2007). Post‐socialist forest disturbance in the Carpathian border region of Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Ecological Applications, 17(5), 1279-1295.

Kuemmerle, T., Hostert, P., Radeloff, V. C., van der Linden, S., Perzanowski, K., & Kruhlov, I. (2008). Cross-border comparison of post-socialist farmland abandonment in the Carpathians. Ecosystems, 11(4), 614-628.