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Adult, baby bison a popular attraction at Fermilab campus in Batavia

Published: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, May 21, 2013 4:59 p.m. CDT

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BATAVIA – Fermilab computing manager Eileen Berman has had the opportunity to look bison straight in the eye. And she didn’t need to travel far from her workplace to do it.

Although Fermilab is known best for its high energy physics research, the laboratory also maintains a herd of bison. The bison are a popular attraction this time of year because of new calves being born.

Fermilab started the spring with 22 animals.

Seven calves recently were born, bringing the size of the herd to 29.

“You don’t usually see animals that big outside of a zoo,” said Berman, who has worked at Fermilab for 28 years. “You can get a lot closer to them than you can normally.”

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 bison 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.

Bison are the heaviest land mammals in North America. Adult males stand as tall as 6 feet at the shoulders and weigh between 1,000 and 2,000 pounds, according to The Nature Conservancy’s website.

“We sell the offspring to keep from inbreeding,” Fermilab employee Mike Becker said. “So typically we sell calves and/or 1-year-olds in the fall. We like to maintain the herd at between 20 to 24 adults.”

Becker said when the herd bulls reach 6 to 8 years old, they get larger than Fermilab’s equipment can handle.

“So around that age, we sell them and bring in new, younger herd bulls,” he said.

Buffalo is the popular name often used to describe North American bison, but 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, according to the website www.allaboutwildlife.com.

One doesn’t have to be a Fermilab employee to see the bison up close. Fermilab is an open campus, and visitors are encouraged to see the bison.

Visitors, including families with young children, can enter the Fermilab site through its Pine Street entrance in Batavia or the Batavia Road entrance in Warrenville. Admission is free, but you will need a valid photo ID to enter the site. Summer hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

Berman likes the fact the bison at Fermilab get room to roam. She would bring her daughter to Fermilab to see the bison when she was younger.

“It’s not a zoo,” she said. “They have the ability to roam all around.”

Fermilab procurement administrator Sandra Efstathiou said she likes the feel that the bison herd adds to Fermilab’s campus.

“It gives a feeling you are out in nature, even though you’re doing this very intense scientific work,” she said.

The person who helps take care of the bison is Cleo Garcia, senior groundskeeper at Fermilab. But he is sure to keep a safe distance from the herd, including when it comes to feeding them. A tractor is used to bring the food to troughs inside the bison pen. The bison also spend a lot of time grazing.

“We try not to get much involved,” Garcia said. “They are wild. They kind of get stressed when you handle them.”

And he is not that worried about any of the animals trying to escape.

“Why would they try to escape?” Garcia asked. “They have everything here. They’ve got an area for grazing. They are happy.”

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