Bison of Fermilab

Physics is our mission, but bison may be Fermilab’s main attraction for visitors. What are bison doing at a physics laboratory? (The oft-told tale that they are Fermilab’s equivalent to the canary in the mineshaft, living Geiger counters to warn of radioactivity, is strictly fiction. The Fermilab site does not present a radiation hazard, and Fermilab bison do not glow in the dark.) Our bison herd carries on a tradition begun by Robert Wilson, the laboratory’s first director, to recognize and strengthen Fermilab’s connection to our prairie heritage. Wilson brought the first American bison, a bull and four cows, to Fermilab in 1969; and in 1971 the Illinois Department of Conservation gave us 21 more. Today’s herd are descendants of those first animals.

The term “buffalo” is commonly but somewhat inexactly applied to the North American bison (Bison bison), a hoofed, short-horned, hump-shouldered member of the cattle family that can reach a height of more than five feet and a weight of 2,500 pounds, give or take, and can run at a speed of 30 miles an hour, usually when in an ill humor. For a little additional hide-splitting, the Fermilab bison are plains bison, distinguishing them from woods bison found farther north in Canada. Woods bison tend toward slightly smaller heads and humps than plains bison, though they can be equally disagreeable.

The bison lends itself to symbol, which is the role of the Fermilab herd: a symbol of the frontier, in this case the frontier of high-energy physics, and a link to the origin of the lab’s site as land of the great Midwestern prairie.

Wild bison once numbered in the tens of millions; the familiar events of their near-extinction left their number under a thousand. Public and private breeding programs have restored the current total to roughly 220,000 in the United States. When the herd gets too big, the laboratory holds an auction. Besides grazing, Fermilab’s bison eat grain and hay baled on the laboratory site. Gestation takes nine months, and most calves are born in the spring. Regular veterinary care keeps the herd in good health. Although they look placid, bison have the undomesticated personality of the wild. Like physicists, they have been described as “cantankerous” by those who have tried to herd them. A double fence around the Fermilab pasture protects the bison and the public from each other. Advice from an experienced hand: “Don’t turn your back on a buffalo.”