Ancient prairie, home to endangered bees and rare plants, may soon be razed by airport

A growing group of people are fighting to save a rare Illinois prairie from imminent destruction.

Illinois, the Prairie State, was once dominated by 22 million acres of grasslands, home to an almost unimaginable diversity of plants and animals. But now, only one-ten-thousandth of the state’s original prairies, or roughly 2,500 acres, remain.

One of the rarest grassland types, dry gravel prairie, is the most endangered: Only 18 high-quality acres remain. Now, Chicago-Rockford International Airport plans to destroy Bell Bowl Prairie, which contains five acres of this precious biome, as part of a planned expansion.

But a growing coalition of environmental groups, scientists, and advocates—including local middle schoolers—are fighting to protect this habitat. Among other reasons, they point out that Bell Bowl hosts nearly 150 plant species and supports a wide variety of birds and insects, including endangered species such as the rusty-patched bumblebee.

“These remnant sites are the most important things in Illinois,” says Paul Marcum, a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey. “It bothers me to no end that a site like this could be destroyed.”  

The airport says that they could begin construction as early as June 1, as soon as consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service conclude.

Meanwhile, conservationists are taking action and weighing their options. How could such a rare and important ecosystem be razed?  

Balancing growth and protection

Bell Bowl was originally protected thanks to its shape. Naturally carved out of the side of an earthen terrace, it was too steep to farm. Instead, it became part of Camp Grant, where soldiers trained during World War I. In 1957, the Greater Rockford Airport Authority received roughly a thousand acres of the camp, protecting part of it. For the better part of a century, conservationists have been calling for its preservation. Nevertheless, Bell Bowl has gotten smaller and smaller, reflecting the trend in prairies nationally.

What remains is a tiny fraction of what existed in the 1800s when settlers arrived. The tallgrass prairie that once covered 170 million acres, a grassland sea in the middle of the continent, takes up just four percent of its original expanse, according to the National Parks Service.

Bell Bowl is rare in that it grows in gravelly rocks, unlike the wetter, loamy soils characteristic of most prairies. It sustains plant species rarely seen in other prairies, including the leadplant, the pasqueflower, and the prairie smoke, a rose with a pink feathery seed head. A survey conducted by the Natural Land Institute lists 146 plant species that thrive there.

The pollinator community is equally diverse. On another prairie in a nearby county, Laura Rericha-Anchor, a biologist with Cook County Forest Preserve District, has found up to a hundred bee species in an area less than half the size of Bell Bowl. At that managed site, only 70 percent or less of the species are the same from one foot to the next. Bell Bowl likely has similar diversity.

For decades, the airport preserved the area, and worked with the Natural Land Institute, a nonprofit organization focused on conserving acreage in northern Illinois, to manage the land by pulling non-native plants and conducting controlled burns.

The airport, however, is growing at record pace. Airports Council International named the Rockford airport the fastest growing airport in the country three years ago.

The second-largest UPS hub in the country, the airport has received millions of dollars from the federal government in the last few years for an expansion project, thanks in part to help from Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin.

In February, Senator Durbin said in a form letter, “I hope that the airport’s plans can be adjusted so that Bell Bowl Prairie can be preserved while allowing Rockford Airport to continue to expand and serve as an economic anchor for the Rockford community.” But Durbin, Duckworth, and Governor J.B. Pritzker all failed to reply to requests to comment for this article.

Yet the airport could expand without ripping up the prairie, conservationists say

“We are not trying to stop the expansion of the airport,” says Kerry Leigh, director of the Natural Land Institute, which is leading the conservation effort. “We really believe that in this century, we can have both/and: We can have both responsible sustainable economic development and protect our natural resources.”

Even the small remaining sections of prairie “should be worshipped in and of themselves,” revered for their 8,000-year ecological history, says Rericha-Anchor. The state government seemed to agree when, last September, the governor established the thirty-by-thirty task force, a coalition to help protect 30 percent of Illinois’ land and water by 2030.

Planned expansion

Last summer, Rockford residents noticed excavating equipment at the airport and notified the Natural Land Institute and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Airport officials explained that the prairie would be bulldozed as part of the facility’s $50 million expansion. The airport had already completed an environmental review and received a finding of no significant impact by the Federal Aviation Administration, a November press release states, a requirement under the National Environmental Policy Act. An environmental consultant who conducted a one-day assessment of the area in August 2018 found no federal or state listed endangered species.

But last August, a Department of Natural Resources biologist saw a rusty patched bumblebee in Bell Bowl. Construction temporarily halted.

The bee itself, however, may not be enough to keep the project from moving forward. Though the bee is listed under the federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined in September 2020 to designate critical habitat for the species—areas necessary for its survival and recovery that require protections—meaning those habitats could be destroyed. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental organization, filed a lawsuit against the agency in March 2021 to challenge the decision.

Leigh and representatives from the Natural Land Institute asked to meet with airport officials and pushed them to redesign the expansion but got little traction. The institute filed lawsuits in October to delay construction, saying the original environmental assessment completed by the airport was inadequate. Just before the airport planned to resume the project, officials announced they would reinitiate an environmental review and consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service to determine the proposed project’s potential impact on the bumble bee. (The agency declined to comment on the project because of the ongoing litigation.)

“Until [consultation is] complete and approvals granted,” says Zack Oakley, the deputy director of operations and planning for the airport, “there won't be any construction happening on the areas that are under review.”

This month, airport officials announced they would not start work for another three months. If the project continues as planned, advocates say the state could lose yet another section of prairie that is critically important to the region and defines the state.  

Precious habitat

The rusty patched bumble bee, one of the 500 bee species Rericha-Anchor and many others have observed thriving in the region’s prairies, is one of the only bee species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Though they used to be common, they are now only found in five to 10 percent of the areas they used to inhabit.

Prairies are key for the species’ recovery, says Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, even five acre chunks like Bell Bowl.

In the winter, the queens burrow into soils and emerge in the spring to nest. Yet scientists don’t have much information about where they spend the colder months, says Elaine Evans, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota who has studied the species for 25 years: “What we're really missing is that overwintering habitat.”

But most bees, including the rusty patched bumble bee, nest in the ground close to where they forage. “If you find one worker in that Bell Bowl Prairie, that prairie is valuable because that bee is practically gone,” says entomologist Sydney Cameron, professor emerita at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has spent decades studying native bees.

Leigh would still like to see the airport redesign the expansion—something she says the organization has offered to help with—and permanently protect the prairie so that conservationists don’t have to continually fight to save it.

The lawsuits the institute filed are ongoing, and advocates hope that the governor’s recent commitment to protecting the state’s resources with the thirty-by-thirty task force will help address some of the inadequacies of current laws to protect these important natural areas.

Airport officials have said ecologists will relocate some of the state-listed endangered plants the bees rely on, but they can’t move the entire prairie community. And moving plants alone wouldn’t do much good, says Rericha-Anchor.

“They can transplant them elsewhere, but that's not the Bell Bowl Prairie any longer. The microclimates, the ancient soils in which the plants’ root zones have developed, and those relationships in the soil microbiome, that's destroyed. It would all be broken, the ecology would be completely disrupted.”

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