The rare, 8,000-year-old Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford and its resident federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee will get a reprieve until at least September, after a new report said the bee could be threatened by growth of the airport next door.
The Chicago Rockford International Airport, which is trying to expand, hired the engineering consulting firm Crawford, Murphy and Tilly to conduct the analysis. The much-awaited report concluded that the cargo airport’s expansion would consume most of the remaining prairie and was “likely to adversely affect” the bumblebee.
This is the first time the airport has publicly acknowledged the deleterious impact of its project on the habitat of the 21-acre Bell Bowl Prairie dry gravel remnant. Conservationists, who say the prairie has irreplaceable scientific value in its complex web of life, filed suit last October to halt construction. Public officials, including Gov. JB Pritzker, have hailed the expansion as vital to continue the rebound in jobs and economic development in the long-stressed Rockford area.
The airport’s expansion has primarily been driven by growth in international shipping and its role as a cargo hub for Amazon and UPS.
A planned road for heavy truck traffic would slice in half the highest-quality, five-acre section of the prairie and damage rare plants such as large-flowered beardtongue and prairie dandelion, conservationists said.
The airport commissioned the biological assessment months ago after construction was halted last August, on part of the 50,000-square-foot expansion project. Road construction abruptly stopped after a local naturalist photographed the endangered bee feeding on flowers at Bell Bowl Prairie, and the Natural Land Institute filed a lawsuit.
The airport consultant’s 300-page report on the adverse impact to the bee now goes to the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Those agencies will decide whether, or how, the expansion project could be completed without further endangering the existence of the bumblebee.
The report states that “populations of rusty patched bumblebee are experiencing drastic large-scale declines nationwide…” and half the population in Illinois has been lost.
Northern Illinois is its best chance for survival in Illinois, the report said.
“The existence of the [Bell Bowl] prairie has likely sustained the presence of suitable habitat for the rusty patched bumblebee.”
The land institute and the state conservation group Friends of the Illinois Nature Preserves said they were encouraged by the report. The construction delay gives them more time to try to explore alternative plans and to lobby the airport and other elected officials.
“The report confirms what we already knew eight months ago about the bee,” said Kerry Leigh, executive director of the land institute. “The good news is that we now have something to react and respond to. There was so much we didn’t know, that the airport didn’t share with us.”
The airport said the partially-completed expansion would create up to 600 new permanent jobs, in addition to the 8,500 people it already employs.
Partly because the prairie is on an Illinois inventory of important habitats, the airport could not just bulldoze it. The airport said it has followed all of the laws and procedures required of it as a public entity, including notices and meetings, and has voluntarily modified its plans to remove a large water holding basin. What it cannot do is move the road, the airport said.
The new report showed that six routes were considered, but even the version that allows for 12 acres of Bell Bowl to remain viable — including its highest-quality section — would force the airport to abandon half of its long-term plan to build another one million square feet of warehouse space. The other routes, one of which envisions a bridge over Bell Bowl Prairie, are also less safe for the stream of cargo trucks expected, especially in winter, said airport spokesman Zach Oakley. The airport’s preferred plan, which is half built, retains six acres of prairie.
To offset the damage to Bell Bowl, Oakley said the airport is offering conservation measures, such as not building during the bee’s active period. It is also willing to spend up to $150,000 to help establish 52 acres of native pollinator habitat.
Amy Doll, director of the state nature preserve group, called the report “half-hearted” and said there “was no real consideration given to how we can save this rare prairie. It’s giving a few pennies for people to plant a few plants.”
The final decision on alternatives and the entire plan will be exercised by the two federal agencies, who have about four months to issue a “Biological Opinion” and direct the airport how to proceed. In the meantime, the report likely will be a topic of conversation this Thursday when prairie advocates attend the airport board meeting.
The prairie advocates said they worry the deck is still stacked against them in the federal review process. Under the Endangered Species Act, if the construction will not cause the extinction of the bumblebee — as the report claims — it could be allowed to proceed.
“Our laws are not written to protect the habitat of endangered species,” Doll said. “The remnant prairie doesn’t have any legal protection. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”
Zachary Nauth is a freelance writer based in Oak Park.
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