Rockford Airport expansion in Bell Bowl Prairie begins Thursday despite push to protect endangered bumblebee’s habitat – Chicago Tribune

The Rockford airport began construction in Bell Bowl Prairie Thursday morning after the Federal Aviation Administration approved an alternate plan for a roadway through the prairie.

One of the last ancient prairies in Illinois, it is home to the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee and has been at the center of a dispute between the airport and environmentalists since 2021.

An emergency motion for a stay filed by the Natural Land Institute to keep the airport from starting construction was denied Wednesday by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Later in the day, dozens of people, online and in person, attended a rally in Rockford that began with ukulele songs, including Tom Chapin’s “This Pretty Planet.” People planning to attend a later vigil at the prairie were promised the possibility of crafting their own rusty patched bumblebee hats out of empty milk jugs. Speakers included community organizers and local leaders.

“No matter the outcome of this fight, we know that we’ve thrown everything that we had into this,” said environmental organizer Jillian Neece at the rally. “We can stand here knowing that we’ve done everything we can — and we’ll continue to do everything we can until the last minute.”

Kerry Leigh, the land institute’s executive director, said the emergency motion was denied by two out of three judges. The group has petitioned for the full bench to vote on the motion. On Saturday, the institute filed a petition for review with the appeals court, challenging the FAA’s 374-page written evaluation and calling it “arbitrary, capricious and legally flawed.”

“No mention is given to how the remaining bifurcated prairie will be harmed by a road severing it down the middle — it is unclear if they still plan to care for the remaining, divided prairie,” said a news release from the institute. “No mention is made about how the irreplaceable soil, microbes, fungi, dormant plants and insects might be handled after they’re excavated.”

According to a statement from the FAA, “Chicago Rockford International Airport will retain more than six acres of the Bell Bowl Prairie. This includes more than three acres of high-quality prairie. Any excavation and shrub and brush clearing work in the project area will occur between October 15 through March 15 to avoid impacts to the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee and avoid the prime nesting seasons for the black-billed cuckoo and the upland sandpiper.”

The original prairie was about 25 acres, much of which has already been destroyed, Leigh said, “and now they want to destroy more, which is not OK.”

“We have 1/100th of 1% of prairie left in the state of Illinois,” she said. “That’s shocking, right? This native prairie is ancient. It’s 8,000 years old. It’s the real America. The ancient America.”

Environmentalists say the road, part of a $50 million airport cargo expansion project, should be rerouted to the east or southeast, where it would avoid the highest-quality prairie and maximize overall prairie preservation.

Leigh said species are going extinct every day, and the loss of more habitat only means more species will have nowhere to live and become extinct.

“There’s a tipping point at which we can lose only so much habitat,” she said. “We are intricately connected to nature which gives us our clean water, our clean air, the air we breathe. Pollinators are also so important for this nation’s food security. The future of our lives really depends on it.”

Representatives of Rockford airport did not respond to requests for comment.

The Bell Bowl Prairie, near Chicago Rockford International Airport in Rockford, on March 8, 2023.
A rusty patched bumblebee specimen at the Field Museum.

Once past March 15, the airport will have to wait until October to resume any activities that could destroy the bumblebee’s habitat. Endangered species laws say that a habitat needs to be protected when a rare organism is on the property, but once it leaves, the habitat can be disturbed.

The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act mandates that public entities consult the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on any projects that could alter environmental conditions or could affect wildlife. But, even when the department provides recommendations, it lacks the authority to require organizations to follow through on any mitigation steps it outlines.

The case of Bell Bowl Prairie exemplifies this lack of enforcement. INDR began a review of the airport’s expansion plans in 2018. The institute’s local field staffers only found out about the project when they saw bulldozers on the property in 2021, Leigh told the Tribune in December.

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Shortly after, the field staff surveyed the property and spotted a rusty patched bumblebee, a discovery that halted construction. The prairie, which is owned by the airport, has since experienced a series of reprieves.

IDNR then updated its recommendation and advised that the airport’s expansion project undergo a more in-depth review, a process that would have required the development of a robust conservation plan and a significant public comment period. But the airport withdrew from that process.

After the FAA, Fish and Wildlife and IDNR all determined the project is unlikely to negatively affect the bumblebee, the land institute announced in January that its lawyers had sent a letter to local, state and federal agencies informing them of plans to file a lawsuit alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act. The FAA’s written reevaluation, released Friday, was the last barrier to construction moving forward.

State and federal agencies are allowing the road through Bell Bowl to proceed in part because there are larger, and likely better, rusty patched bumblebee habitats within 10 kilometers (or 6.2 miles) of the prairie, according to government documents.

Chicago Tribune’s Maddie Ellis and Nara Schoenberg contributed.

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