The Bialowieza Forest, which spans 350,000 acres between Poland and Belarus, is home to a vulnerable population of about 600 bison. But this winter, the forest also became home to a reddish brown cow who decided to escape domestic life for some time in the wild. Poland's TVN24 news portal reports an ornithologist first spotted her in November, wandering the outskirts of the forest with a herd of about 50 bison.
This week, Rafal Kowalczyk, a bison expert and director of the Mammal Research Institute at the Polish Academy of Sciences, spotted the cow again. He told TVN24 that she appears healthy. She is a Limousin cow, which means she has thick fur, and eastern Poland has had a relatively mild winter. He also says the bison herd she is traveling with appears to be doing a good job of finding nutrient-rich food like corn.
"This isn't the first time in this region that a cow has escaped, but it's the first time that a cow has joined a herd of bison," Kowalczyk told TVN24. "With the bison, it's safe from wolves. If it was on its own, it would likely fall victim to wolves."
Though she is healthy now, Kowalczyk warned The Associated Press that if she were to successfully mate with a bison, the hybrid calf could be too large for her to deliver safely.
Mating could also contaminate the endangered bison population's gene pool. In 1927, no European bison remained in the wild, and 54 remained in captivity. But the species, which goes by the scientific name Bison bonasus, has begun to recover: According to the European Bison Conservation Center, the total number of European bison had risen to 6,083 individuals by the end of 2015.
To prevent the risk of mating, the cow will need to be taken away from the bison population by this summer. In the meantime, Bialowieza Forest has other concerns: In November 2017, the European Court of Justice ordered that Poland cease illegal forest management activities there or face daily penalties of at least 100,000 euros ($125,000).
In August 2017, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported that the government's forest policies dismayed environmental advocates:
"The Polish government insists Mother Nature has lost control of Bialowieza Forest. Polish Minister of the Environment Jan Szyszko has repeatedly warned of a spreading bark beetle infestation targeting spruce trees in particular.
"He says the forest must not be left to its own devices and that infected trees and those around them must be cut down. Last year, he approved a plan that triples the amount of logging in parts of the forest. It sparked an international outcry."
The Bialowieza Forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It contains some of the last old-growth, or primeval, forest in Europe.
NPR's Ryan Lucas and Joanna Pawlowska contributed to this report.