Endangered bumblebee is blocking Ill. airport expansion that will destroy rare prairie — but only for another week

A federally endangered bumblebee has temporarily saved one of Illinois' rarest prairies from the bulldozer, but only until Nov. 1.

Meanwhile, biologists and conservationists are working to convince the prairie’s owner, the Chicago Rockford International Airport, to change its plans for a roughly 280-acre expansion that would go through the heart of the Bell Bowl Prairie in Winnebago County.

This 5-acre virgin gravel prairie is part of only 18.4 acres of this type of prairie left in the state, according to the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory.

Bell Bowl Prairie contains at least 164 species of plants, many of which are rare, and birders have found rare nesting birds such as the grasshopper sparrow.

“It’s like having a 500-year-old ancient, grandfather clock and saying, ‘I’m going to tear it up and throw it in the fireplace so I can roast marshmallows,’ ” said Randy Nyboer, a recently retired ecologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Illinois Natural History Survey.

Work has begun on the multimillion dollar airport expansion, which includes building a new cargo center and expanding cargo ramps for more planes, as well as building new roads and parking areas. Most of Bell Bowl Prairie will be destroyed as part of the expansion.

Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute, said airport officials have refused to meet with the land institute and its partners to discuss ways for the expansion to circumvent the prairie.

“The airport can be heroes by saving the prairie,” she said.

Airport officials would only comment in an email statement about the expansion plans.

The airport “followed all guidelines and rules set forth by the FAA, federal, state and local government that are required in order to proceed with any development in the assessment area. This included public notices, public meetings and notices to all media in the area. As required, RFD (the airport) completed the environmental assessment in 2019 and ultimately received a finding of no significant impact from the FAA in November 2019,” said Zack Oakley, deputy director of operations and planning for the airport, in the statement.


A remnant of America’s past landscape, the prairie has been saved several times since the 1960s by George Fell, founder of the natural areas movement and conservation organizations like the land institute and The Nature Conservancy.

His legacy is now on the chopping block.

Bell Bowl is a gravel prairie, considered among the rarest of the rare in Illinois, according to John White, a consultant who is a former chief ecologist for The Nature Conservancy. He wrote a white paper about the prairie for the land institute and also presented a statement to the Greater Rockford Airport Authority at a recent meeting.

A U.S. Army training camp during World War I and World War II, most of Bell Bowl was not disturbed by grazing or plowing. That makes it a remnant prairie, of which less than one-hundredth of 1% remains in Illinois, according to White’s paper.

Bell Bowl Prairie, originally 20 acres, is now down to 5.

“Over the years, they’ve gradually encroached on part of the prairie,” said Rockford resident and birder John Longhenry. “It’s been pretty well chopped, and now they want to drive a road through the heart of it disturbing the prairie.”

Leigh said the land institute and other environmental organizations were not aware of the expansion plans the airport initiated two years ago. They only discovered the plans after someone saw an area near the prairie being bulldozed this summer, she said.

A short time later, an employee with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources discovered the rusty patched bumble bee foraging there.

In his email statement, Oakley said, “(The airport) agreed to pause all work in the affected area until November 1, 2021, when the bee foraging season is over.”

Endangered species laws say that habitat needs to be protected when a rare organism is on the property —but once it leaves — the habitat can be disturbed. Some biologists consider that to be a major flaw in endangered species protection laws, and attorneys general in 17 states filed a lawsuit in 2019 after the Trump administration further gutted the Endangered Species Act.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, queen bees hibernate underground in winter and emerge in spring to lay eggs that produce new queens, males and workers. The old queen, males and workers die before the end of the season. New queens, already laden with eggs, then burrow a few inches beneath the soil to hibernate.

Disturb the prairie soil and any new queen bees that decided to hibernate there may not survive to reproduce.

“It’s like bulldozing the bumblebee,” Nyboer said.

No one knows for sure, however, if any queen bees are hibernating in Bell Bowl Prairie, and endangered species laws don’t address that issue.

The rusty patched bumble bee has declined by 87% in the past 20 years and is likely present in 0.1% of its historical range, according to the fish and wildlife service.


The land institute is staging a letter-writing and Facebook campaign, called Save Bell Bowl Prairie, asking politicians who have earmarked money in the past for the airport, to intercede.

Over the years, the airport received at least $44 million in governmental funding, with a $9 million federal grant in 2019 sanctioned by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. At the time, Durbin called the airport “an economic driver for all of northern Illinois.”

The airport touts itself as the fastest growing cargo airport in the world, and its expansion will include more space for cargo planes.

The land institute is holding a public meeting Tuesday to raise support for its campaign and is planning to make its case to Durbin before the Nov. 1 deadline.

Last week, several prairie protesters showed up at an Openlands luncheon where Durbin was being presented a conservation award.

Leigh said the land institute has examined the environmental assessment of the prairie commissioned by the airport and is sending a document to the FAA contending there are flaws in the report.

For example, a field survey was done in the wrong season to locate two state endangered plants, so the report listed them as absent, she said.


Longhenry has photographed rare birds at the prairie for at least 10 years.

“It’s a wonderful little place for nesting birds,” said Longhenry, a volunteer bird bander at Colored Sands Forest Preserve in Winnebago County.

“We’ve had some real critical species nesting out there, for example, Bell’s vireo and blue grosbeak. The Illinois endangered loggerhead shrike stopped by and had snacks out there one fall,” he said. An upland sandpiper, also endangered in the state, has been documented on the prairie.

For years, Longhenry said he and other birders as well as volunteer land stewards had permission to enter the prairie. The last time he visited, he said he found signs forbidding entry.

Rockford resident Dan Williams, a former board member for the land institute, said up to now, the airport has been “somewhat cooperative” with environmental organizations in giving access to the prairie and permission to take care of it.

“As little as five years ago, they were going to run an obstacle course in the mud. I called and asked if it would affect the prairie. They told me no, they were avoiding the prairie. The airport is aware of the prairie’s importance to the people,” Williams said.

Nyboer said the endangered plants are important because discoveries could be made one day about potential medicinal properties that could help treat human illnesses.

Bell Bowl also allows people to experience what a prairie looked like thousands of years ago before most of it got developed, Leigh said.

“It’s the most peaceful grounding feeling when you walk into the prairie,” she said. “Your stress melts away. You begin to notice things, little details, a rare plant.”

Airport officials have recently acknowledged the presence of rare plants on the prairie.

“(The airport) has also voluntarily been working with IDNR on a field survey and relocation of two state-endangered plant species (large-flowered beard tongue and prairie dandelion). (The airport) agreed to allow IDNR to remove these specific plants prior to commencing construction,” Oakley said in the statement.

But state botanist Paul Marcum said moving a few plants is not going to save the prairie, an intact ecosystem that needs all the species to survive.

It’s a matrix of sand and gravel, a relic of the glacial age, he said. “If you try to dig it up, it will fall apart,” said Marcum, associate project leader for botany for the Illinois Natural History Survey/ Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Such a unique and rare habitat should have significant value to us. All alternatives should be thought of to protect it.”

“Except for the rusty patched bumble bee, the prairie probably would have already been removed. … The dozers are at the door,” Marcum said.


This is not the first time conservationists have tried to save the prairie. Fell, a lifelong Rockford resident, helped save it in 1968, a few decades after Illinois established the Greater Rockford Airport Authority.

Fell knew how rare the prairie was on that property and spoke with officials about it as the airport grew. They made a “vague promise” not to disturb the prairie tract, according to the biographical book, “Force of Nature” by Arthur Melville Pearson.

After that promise, Fell tried to negotiate a lease or sale contract between the land institute and the airport to ensure the site’s permanent protection and stewardship.

“The airport authority rebuffed each offer,” Pearson wrote.

Even though the prairie is listed as one of the highest quality habitats on the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, that specification doesn’t afford much protection unless the owners agree to apply for its status as an Illinois Nature Preserve or Natural Heritage Landmark.

Pearson also wrote that in the 1970s, the airport secured the FAA’s permission to excavate part of the prairie for expansion.

Fell succeeded in halting the expansion with what Pearson called “an eleventh hour intervention by Governor Samuel Shapiro of Illinois.”

Those who love Bell Bowl Prairie hope for a similar intervention.

“A high quality, old-growth prairie is the Midwest equivalent of a cathedral redwood grove — only far, far rarer,” White wrote. “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.”