Life Science 4
What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.
~Werner Karl Heisenberg

Big Bang: Prairie Continues to Expand

Little House on the Fallow Field just doesn't sound right. That's why Bob Lootens works so hard to maintain the mostly mesic (between wet and dry) prairie that blankets Fermilab's grounds.
But that's probably not what Dr. Robert Betz had in mind when he first approached Fermilab director Robert Wilson with plans to transform the area surrounding the lab in 1973.
"Betz was a professor at Northeastern University who had studied prairies," explained Lootens. "He heard of this 'atom smasher' being built out in Batavia with all this agricultural land and he thought 'Now there's a place where, if they let me, I could build a big prairie.' His idea...was to restore a huge prairie that would someday make a difference. The first restored plot was nine acres and we're up to a total of 1,200 acres now."
With time comes change and diversity. The oldest part of the prairie has become home to more than a hundred native species of plants while the youngest (most recently restored) prairie plots house about fifty. As the prairies mature, a wide variety of insects and small animals will make their homes there. "They just migrate in. See, that's the exciting thing: the impact it has. When you plant an area like this, you're going to see more bees, more butterflies, more dragonflies" and even more flowers and rodents.
To maintain the land, Fermilab's Department of Roads and Grounds holds seed harvests in the fall. During the rest of the year, it enriches younger prairies with the harvested seed, and conducts inventory surveys as needed.
"Betz's goal was realized, and it's still going." The prairie is maintained not only by the Department of Energy and Fermilab, but also by dedicated volunteers. One example is the fall seed harvest, staffed mostly by volunteers. "We used to have twenty or thirty people show up. Now we've got a couple hundred per harvest."
"I think that we will continue to expand," said Lootens. "You come here in ten or twenty years, and you are going to see a much different prairie. That's the beauty of it."
Beautiful Bison Did Someone Say Canary?
American Plains Bison: not just any buffalo. One would expect no less from Fermilab's first director, Dr. Robert Wilson, who brought these mammoth creatures to Fermilab's luxurious 6,800-acre plot of land in 1969. These bison roamed the Midwestern plains well before settlers established a farming community on the soil that is now the location of one of the most respected research laboratories in the world.
What began as a handful of livestock has developed into a successful wildlife program aimed at helping to restore the bison population. Fermilab is not the only beneficiary of the herd's prosperity. The lab now holds an annual auction to sell a portion of the herd, drawing customers from across the country. The profits supplement Fermilab's funding.
So what would a particle physics laboratory know about raising bison? Program Director Don Hanson explained "I've traveled all over the U.S. looking at buffalo." Having seen so many herds, he concludes that Fermilab's is "in the top ten percent."
This nationally-acclaimed herd can be enjoyed by people in local communities, too. "You don't have to go out to Wyoming or Colorado to see bison, or even a zoo," said Hanson, "You can see them here, and in a more or less natural state."
According to former lab director Dr. John Peoples, people used to joke that the bison were Fermilab's version of coal-miners' canaries. This is certainly not the case.
When men would work in coal mines, sometimes they'd come accross very toxic gases trapped deep below the surface of the earth. There were times when dozens of men died while working. Since they didn't have expensive technical equipment to detect these noxious fumes, miners would bring canaries with them. These small birds were affected by even small amounts of toxic gas. If a miner noticed that his canary was ill or had died, then they knew it was time to leave—and quick!
The bison at Fermilab, though, are not secret detectors of radiation. They have their home on the grounds as a way for the public to relate to this laboratory. The first director, Dr. Wilson, thought it would be a good way to make use of all the open land that belongs to Fermilab.