They’re big; they’re hairy; and they’re expecting a bumper crop this spring. And while those big things roaming the grounds of Fermilab in the western suburbs aren’t technically buffalo, you can be excused for the mistake.
They are actually American bison, and the herd at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia is a little bigger this week with the birth of the first calf of spring on Saturday, according to a statement from the facility. The number will be grow soon, as 12 more births are expected this spring.
The herd was established in 1969 by Robert Wilson, the Fermilab’s first director as a way “to recognize and strengthen Fermilab’s connection to our prairie heritage,” a statement from the facility said.
It started with a bull and four cows, and grew to 26 in 1971 when the Illinois Department of Conservation brought 21 more bison to the area. All of the animals now on site are descendants of those pioneers.
The mix of cutting-edge science and rural prairie is obvious at Fermilab, which has seven particle accelerators and 1,100 acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie on a 6,800-acre site, declared a National Environmental Research Park in 1989.
What is more popular? Officials admit “buffalo may be Fermilab’s main attraction for visitors.” Thousands come every year, and many never make into the indoor exhibit area.
Bison are members of the cattle family that can grow to over 5 feet at the tip of their predominant humps and reach 2,500 pounds. But they can still run up to 30 mph, making the double fence around the enclosure necessary for the protection of both the animals and the gawkers.
“Although they look placid, buffalo have the undomesticated personality of the wild,” the statement said. “Advice from an experienced hand: ‘Don’t turn your back on a buffalo.’”
Today there are about 220,000 wild buffalo in the United States, a devastating drop from tens of millions that once roamed the plains.
Visitors can access the site, about half a mile from Wilson Hall, through entrances on Pine Street in Batavia, or Batavia Road in Warrenville. There is no charge, but it is federal facility, so a valid photo ID is required.
There is a half-mile hiking trail, viewing area on the 15th floor of Wilson Hall, or, if you really are interested in physics, Lederman Science Education Center has hands-on exhibits.
The herd of buffalo outside an often-misunderstood facility — do you know what a particle accelerator really does? — has led to some wild rumors, officials admit.
“The oft-told tale they are Fermilab’s equivalent to the canary in the mineshaft, living Geiger counters to warn of radioactivity, is strictly fiction,” the statement says. “The Fermilab site does not present a radiation hazard, and Fermilab buffalo do not glow in the dark.”