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Bison a big hit at Fermilab

A bison waits near the farm at Fermilab early Friday morning for Jon Plese to feed the herd.
A bison waits near the farm at Fermilab early Friday morning for Jon Plese to feed the herd.

BATAVIA – Buddy kept his eye on Jon Plese as he approached the fence on the grounds of Fermilab.

As Buddy licked his lips, there was no doubt what was on his mind and that of his fellow bison – food. But feeding an 1,800-pound animal is not as easy as just ripping open a bag of food and pouring it into a dish.

"You can't just walk in their pen," said Plese, 42, who takes care of the herd. "They are wild animals. They are unpredictable."

Feeding the animals has become a routine for Plese, who has worked at Fermilab for 22 years. He took over as bison herder three years ago after the previous herder retired.

Plese has to retreat to the safety of a tractor to feed the herd. After attaching a wagon full of 4 percent dairy protein pellets to the tractor, he drives the tractor to the empty troughs. Then, he pulls a lever to dispense the pellets.

Some of the herd is already waiting at the troughs as Plese drives the tractor past them.

So what are bison doing at a physics laboratory? Robert Wilson, Fermilab's first director, brought the first American bison – a bull and four cows – to Fermilab in 1969. According to Fermilab officials, Wilson wanted to recognize and strengthen Fermilab's connection to our prairie heritage. Today's herd are descendants of those animals.

The animals have become a hit with visitors to Fermilab's campus, who can watch them roam on 80 acres of land.

Buffalo is the popular name often used to describe North American bison however, this is a misnomer. In fact, buffalo are distinctly different animals from bison. Although both bison and buffalo belong to the same family, Bovidae, true 'buffalo' are native only to Africa and Asia.

The herd currently consists of 18 animals. When they get too big – they can reach up to 3,000 pounds – they are sold.

"They are kind of hard to contain at that point," said Tona Kunz, Fermilab public information officer. "People use them for breeding. They are known for their lean meat."

Fermilab's bison herd will soon grow. Twelve of the animals are cows, and they are expected to give birth this year. Plese witnessed a couple of births last year. The experience amazed him.

"The calf is walking within a half-hour after it is born," Plese said. "Within an hour or two, it is almost running."

Plese has never been injured by one of the animals. But he has to be careful – especially now.

"When they are getting ready to calve, cows start getting super aggressive," he said. "They are real protective."

Plese's love for the bison is tattooed on his right shoulder. And he doesn't see giving up his herding any time soon.

"I like being around them and being out in the fresh air," Plese said.

What: Family Outdoor Activity Fair at the Department of Energy's Fermilab

When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Fermilab, at the Kirk Road and Pine Street entrance, Batavia

Cost: Free, but registration is required. Fair participants must send an email with the number of children and adults attending the event to

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