10,000-Year-Old Rare Prairie Land and Rusty Patched Bumblebee Threatened by Airport Construction in Illinois

An image of yellow grasses at Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, Illinois
The prairie is 10,000 years old and was carved by the retreat of the last glaciers and is considered a gravel prairie. Only about 25 acres of high-quality gravel prairie are left in the state. Bell Bowl makes up five acres of what is left. Cassi Saari via Wikicommons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Editor’s Note, October 28, 2021: The Chicago Rockford International Airport announced Thursday evening that construction on the expansion project would stop after the Natural Land Institute filed a lawsuit Wednesday, WTVO reports. The airport will redesign the project to spare Bell Bowl Prairie.

“The FAA is reinitiating consultation under the Endangered Species Act with the USFWS to evaluate impacts to the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, so planned construction initially scheduled to continue on November 1 will be suspended until further consultation is completed. We anticipate the resumption of the project in the spring of 2022,” said Zack Oakley, the airport’s deputy director of operations and planning.

A multimillion-dollar Chicago Rockford International Airport (RFD) expansion is threatening the Bell Bowl Prairie in Illinois. The prairie is a fragile 10,000-year-old ecosystem critical to various rare and endangered species like the federally protected rusty patched bumblebee (Bombus affinis), the elusive black-billed cuckoo, and other unique plants and animals, reports Ali Rasper for Rockford’s local radio station 23WIFR. Bell Bowl is also one of Illinois’s last remnants of pristine prairie habitat. Sixty percent of the state, or about 22 million acres, was once prairie—now, only 2,500 acres remain, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Sightings of the rusty patched bumblebee in Bell Bowl over the summer temporarily stopped airport construction until November 1 when bee foraging season ends. Until then, environmentalists and advocates are racing to save the prairie and working to convince the airport to tweak plans for its 280-acre cargo expansion that will destroy most of Bell Bowl Prairie in the process, the Chicago Tribune’s Sheryl Devore reports.

Critical Habitat

Bell Bowl prairie is owned by the airport and sits on its nearly 3,000-acre property. The prairie was carved by the retreat of the last glaciers and is considered a gravel prairie. These types of prairies are usually dry, steep, and filled with mounds or ridges of gravel not suitable for agriculture, reports Patty Wetli for WTTW. Only about 25 acres of high-quality gravel prairie are left in the state. Bell Bowl makes up five acres of what is left, reports Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco for Northern Public Radio.

Despite being a small plot of land, Bell Bowl is a critical habitat for 164 plant species, endangered bees, and rare birds, like the grasshopper sparrow and the state threatened black-billed cuckoo spotted in 2013, per Northern Public Radio. Other birds like the Bobolink, a migrant bird that winters in South America but migrates to the Midwest during the summer to breed, rely on habitats like Bell Bowl, writes Daniel Suarez, Audubon’s conservation manager for Illinois/Indiana, in a statement.

“We’ve had some real critical species nesting out there, for example, Bell’s vireo and blue grosbeak,” John Longhenry, a local resident, and birder, told the Chicago Tribune. “The Illinois endangered loggerhead shrike stopped by and had snacks out there one fall.”

Midfield Air Cargo Development Vs. Environmentalists

The airport is making room for a 100,000 square foot cargo facility, also known as the Midfield Air Cargo Development, was approved in June 2018, Patty Wetli reports for WTTW. However, Kerry Leigh, Illinois’ Natural Land Institute’s executive director, and other environmentalists were unaware of the plans to flatten Bell Bowl until after a birder spotted bulldozers parked near the prairie, WTTW reports.

Advocates, including Leigh, have urged authorities to consider changing the expansion plan so it won’t impact the prairie. Environmentalists have sent thousands of letters to officials and one petition to Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, reports Monica Eng for Axios Chicago. In an opinion article published in the Rockford Register Star, Leigh has also proposed solutions for the airport’s expansion, such as creating a permeable road to retain stormwater in the area.

the airport followed all guidelines set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and federal, local, state governments before they proceeded with development in Bell Bowl, including sending out public notices to residents and media in the area and setting up public meetings, explained Zack Oakley, RFD airport’s deputy director of operations and planning, in an emailed statement to the Chicago Tribune. The airport also completed an environmental assessment, and the FAA ruled there was no negative environmental impact in 2019.

While the environmental assessment was completed, some advocates criticize that there were several flaws with the evaluation. For example, only one day of observation for endangered species was done, WTTW reports.

Airport officials have acknowledged the presence of rare species and are working towards relocating endangered plant species like the prairie dandelion, large-flowered beardtongue, aromatic aster, and the prickly pear, per Axios Chicago.

However, state botanist Paul Marcum told the Chicago Tribune that relocating plants does not fix the issue. An intact ecosystem is needed for all species to thrive and survive. Because of the landscape’s sandy and rocky nature, the ecosystem will likely fall apart.

“Transplanting any part of Bell Bowl Prairie would be an exercise in futility, not a viable option,” John White, a botanist who has worked in the past with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, said in a statement in support of preserving Bell Bowl. “It would be taking the living equivalent of the most intricate, exquisite stained glass church window, shattering it, casting the shards on the ground, and then hoping that it will reassemble itself.”

What Happens Next?

Although construction is halted because of the rusty patched bumblebee sightings, the demolition can still resume once its pollinating season is considered over because only the species is protected—not its habitat, WTTW reports. Bell Bowl is designated as one of the highest quality habitats on the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, but that distinction does not offer ecosystem protection. Bell Bowl can only receive protection if the landowners apply to designate the area as an Illinois Nature Preserve or Natural Heritage Landmark, per the Chicago Tribune.

Advocates and environmentalists have taken to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to spread awareness to save Bell Bowl Prairie. Supporters of the remnant land are planning rallies and investigating other legal options.

“A high quality, the old-growth prairie is the Midwest equivalent of a cathedral redwood grove — only far, far rarer,” White writes in a statement. “Bell Bowl Prairie can be spared by redesigning the airport expansion and by building green infrastructure next to the prairie — perhaps even showcasing the prairie. … My plea for preservation is not an unfounded land grab attempt, and it is not knee-jerk opposition to development. It is a plea to preserve the precious and irreplaceable.”

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