The Little Herd on the Prairie
Fermilab worker helps preserve a piece of the western suburbs’ indigenous past
Over the years, Cleofas Garcia’s profession has been a conversation starter. He is a west suburban herdsman — an eyebrow-raiser topped only by the fact that one western suburb has long been home to a bison herd.
The 15-year Fermilab employee has been senior groundskeeper/herdsman for the past decade. The Batavia resident entered his field the way perhaps most herdsmen do. When his predecessor got hurt, Garcia, 57, was asked to step in. He’d already been assisting for five years and was happy to oblige.
"I’m not an office or factory guy — I like to work outdoors,” says the former Aurora resident. “I used to handle cattle down in Mexico — I fed and vaccinated them and took care of the calves at a small family cattle ranch. My whole life has been around big animals.”
The father of three grown sons used to enjoy participating at his kids’ schools’ career day, where he was a bit of a curiosity.
“Not too many people do that around here,” Garcia says with understatement.Wherever he goes, his “bison herdsman” title is a point of curiosity.
“Some people don’t believe we have animals here (at Fermilab.) Others say, ‘Bison? What’s a bison?’” he says with a laugh. “Then they want to know how they can see them.”
Everyone is welcome to visit the bison, and this is the most popular time of year — calving season, from April to June. This spring, Garcia expects 12 to 14 calves to be born, each weighing 35 to 55 lbs. Cars and busses full of visitors arrive daily to enjoy the scene. (Fermilab is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is free, but a valid photo ID is required. Dogs are prohibited, as barking disturbs laboring bison.)
No two days are alike for the herd of large, hardy animals. Sometimes the bison are ready for close-up photos near the fences; sometimes they wander to the far corners of the pastures. On windy days, they may head into the corral for shelter, which makes it more difficult to get a good view. At least 10 of the 14 adult females are carrying a calf this spring, says Garcia. The herd also includes eight younger females and two bulls, 24 bison in all.
When Garcia arrived the herd was nearly twice that size, but every October a few are sold to Indiana and southern Illinois ranchers through a sealed-bid auction. Most of the cows — the females — were born at Fermilab, but the bulls are generally purchased to avoid inbreeding.
“Our herd has excellent genetics,” Garcia says, “People like the way our animals look.”
Using genetic testing, Fermilab’s ecologist confirmed the herd hasn’t mixed with cattle, a practice that was common years ago to tame the wild animals.
Fermilab’s first bison came from Wyoming and South Dakota in 1969, says Garcia, but many years ago, bison were indigenous to this area. They are no longer endangered, thanks to conservation efforts such as the herd at Fermilab.
So why do bison roam the pastures of Fermilab’s home? For the same reason Fermilab’s first director, Robert Wilson, brought them here — public enjoyment.
According to a Fermilab press release, they’re a symbol of the history of the Midwestern prairie and the laboratory’s pioneering research at the frontiers of particle physics. A herd of bison is a natural fit for a natural laboratory.
Bison are similar to cattle, Garcia says, though hardier, thanks to the heavy, shaggy coats they grow in winter — the heat bothers them more than the cold. But the “semi-wild” animals are unpredictable enough that employees don’t interact closely with the 1400 to 2000-lb creatures.
“They can be dangerous. Even though they see us often, they are wild,” says Garcia. “They could react differently than cattle and we actually try to keep the wild in them. We always take a piece of equipment or a truck into the pastures.
”During winter, workers supplement the herd’s food with grain and hay. Heaters keep their water from freezing. The rest of the year, the herd grazes on 80 acres, rotating through various pastures to keep the grass fresh.
Garcia’s tasks include bringing in the calves for vaccinations as well as securing fencing, making sure no wires come loose from the electrified sections that keep the bison away, typical for cattle enclosures. “The animals steer clear of the fences because they sense the current,” he says.
Garcia hopes to remain at Fermilab until retirement doing what he doesn’t consider work. “I love what I do,” says the west suburban herdsman. “If you like what you do, it’s not a job.”Edit Module