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Jonathan Rubin/Medill

A young bison at Fermilab’s bison ranch

A wild frontier with an atomic center

by Jonathan Rubin
Oct 11, 2007


Jonathan Rubin/Medill

Fermilab’s bison herd-master John Plese.


The nation’s largest bison owner? Ted Turner - the bison burgers at his Ted’s Montana Grills come right from his own ranches.


The Fermilab creators originally wanted long-horn steers on their prairie. When the Federal government jacked up the price for the animals, Fermilab passed and switched to Bison. They started with a single male named “Oboy.”

Look, but don’t touch.

That’s John Plese’s advice for dealing with the gentle-looking bison that lumber around his ranch. Some of the brown shaggy creatures might saunter over to the wood corral gates that fence off the Illinois prairie, but don’t try to pet them.

“One might start licking your hand and than take a horn and take your hand off,” said Plese, the chief herder.

The bison (don’t call them buffalo – that name, while tossed around a lot, really applies to Asian and African varieties) are wild animals, and they are located next to some expensive equipment – a silo, a few tractors, and Fermilab’s multi-billion dollar particle accelerator. The bison coexist with some of the greatest scientific discoveries happening on the earth today, but remain blissfully apart from them.

This incongruous scene is located in Batavia, an hour west of Chicago. The herd, now 27 cows and bulls, was the brainchild of Fermilab's founder, Robert Wilson. Wilson loved the wilderness, and decades ago, a fellow scientist recommended that he try and restore the prairie, and in 1969 he started doing just that.

Today, the bison ranch is fenced within Fermilab's sprawling 6,800 acres of prairie and wetlands. The restored prairie generates a lush biodiversity with egrets, falcons and a multitude of local plants. Local science students of all ages tour the grounds on a daily basis, with the bison as the highlight.

Plese is dressed in a denim jacket and pants and sports a black and yellow John Deere cap. He has a salt-and-pepper goatee and  is cheerful and animated. He loves his job, he says, and enjoys working with his hands. He built the maze of wooden fences that enclose the bison himself, and in his 20 years at the farm he’s seen a lot of calves born, and a lot sold. The animals are tagged and sold in auction for breeding or for food (“But we don’t tell the kids that,” one employee said with a smile.)

The odd juxtaposition of powerful electromagnets and herd animals have yielded many urban legends, which education program leader Sue Sheehan sets to rest – no, the cattle don’t glow in the dark. No, they were never used as “canaries in a coalmine.” They were simply created to bring some beauty to the countryside, and provide international visitors with a taste of Americana.

The herd is there for its aesthetic value, mostly, although small herds like it have helped a nationwide effort to successfully inrease the  bison population. Once numbering in the tens of millions, the bisons were used for food, skins and other purposes by the Native American populaions.  The wholesale slaughter of the bison by  white settlers  brought them  to the brink of extinction – by 1889, by some accounts, there were fewer than 600 in the whole country.

Fortunately, conservation efforts and breeding technology lifted the bison from the endangered species list, and today there are more than 160,000 of them nationwide.

Plese said that while some ranchers are breeding bison with traditional cows to make “beefalos” – bison-cattle crossbreeds, most are interested in bison meat --  a savory, lower-fat alternative to beef.

Born at up to 70 pounds, the calves soon reach hundreds of pounds, and adults at Fermilab have weighed more than a ton. Every spring, the cows give birth. Recently, their 10 cows gave birth to nine babies (“We lost one,” Plese said regretfully). This week he separated the animals that would be sold from the rest of the herd, and most were a little mopey. Some would huff, like a huge horse whinnying underwater, while some  chased each other around the gated area.

“They want to be out on the prairie.. this is like jail for them,” Plese said.
The bison are sold by private auction to bidders in Illinois, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. The asking price? A young calf, six or seven months old, can go for as little as $300. The bison are a victim of their own success – more bison means a greater supply and a lower price, now half of what it was 10 years ago, Plese said.

That price can seem like a steal – one year, Plese said someone paid $200 for a 1,600 pound cow. With at least 700 pounds of useable meat, at $6 to $8 a pound, that’s not chump change.

“Anyone can buy them,” Plese said. “You can pay a guy $50 to $100 to take them to the slaughterhouse.”

The Fermilab cows are well taken care of, Plese said. They are given a feed of grains and vitamin pellets, and get lots of exercise.

The bison don’t have names, just numbered red or yellow tags on their ears. Plese said he usually doesn’t get attached to them, but there was one exception. He once had a bull that he took a liking to, and he named him “Bud.” They got to know each other over their eight years together, and Bud even ate of his hand. But, as he grew older, Bud had to be sold like all the rest.

“I hated to do it,” Plese said, looking between the wooden slats at the grunting, muscled animals.“But if you don’t sell em’, you’re going to have 200, 300 of them soon.”

Fermilab said the entire operation costs them about $50,000 yearly, after whatever is made through sales. Fermilab educator Nancy Lanning said that last year the ranch revived their popular bison cookout fundraiser, with fresh bison from other farms. It was so successful they ran out of meat.

Still, cuts to Fermilab’s funding from the Department of Energy have trickled down to the ranch. Financial necessity has forced them to reduce their normal herd of 70 to about 27. Plese remembers years ago when there were as many as 150.

The ranch itself has seen better days. Plese and his workers are working to replace the 25 year old wooden fence, now cracked in many places. Still, he said that budget cuts haven’t affected him too much on a daily basis, although he always has to get by with less than he’d like.

And the lab itself is seeing some stiff competition from a new lab that has stolen its claim of being the world’s largest -- CERN, a rival lab built in Geneva It  might produce as much as seven times as much energy as Fermilab’s famed Tevatron ring, according to Fermilab’s staff.

Plese said the toughest part about the job is whenever it’s time for bison health care – vaccinations, “worming” and semen analysis for the bulls sold to breeders. They corral the bulls into a narrow metal chute and once the head is secured the veterinarian checks the animal out. The metal cage is scarred with long, white gouges from angry horns.

Plese points to the ravaged steel  with pride, and a little bit of awe. He knows that even after 20 years, he still can’t afford to get too friendly.
“They can lift up the front end of a pickup truck with their horns,” he said.
“And that’s just with their neck muscles.”