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Rusty Patched Bumble Bee Stalls Construction over Bell Bowl Prairie

Bell Bowl Prairie Outside of the Chicago Rockford International Airport
Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Bell Bowl Prairie Outside of the Chicago Rockford International Airport

The discovery of a foraging rusty patched bumble bee stalled construction on an expansion project at the Chicago Rockford International Airport -- but only for a while. Environmental advocates want the delay to be permanent. They say the project would destroy one of the last remnants of the state’s original prairie.

The rusty patched bumble bee (scientific name, Bombus affinis) used to be fairly common in the U.S. and in parts of Canada. But Kraig McPeek with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the native bumble bee is now only found in about 13 states and just one Canadian province.

“There has been a pretty significant reduction in overall range of the species,” said McPeek. “Primarily, that contributed to the wide scale loss of prairies throughout the United States and Canada.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted the rusty patched bumble bee endangered species status back in January 2017. The sighting of the bumble bee temporarily halted development of roadway over the Bell Bowl Prairie near the Rockford Airport.

“That's kind of where we're at here is that the bee was recently identified, and there are conservation measures that are going to be implemented, that wouldn't delay a project,” said McPeek. “And that's fully within the statute within the Endangered Species Act to do that."

Zack Oakley with the Airport Authority says the airport’s development plan went through an environmental approval process that wrapped up in November 2019. The airport agreed to coordinate with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to work around the endangered bee.

“We've kind of come to agreement that we will... that area that's affected that the roadway crosses will hold off until November 1st when the bee foraging season is over,” said Oakley. “And then construction will commence again after November 1st back through that area to complete the roadway.”

Back in 1978, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory -- the state’s first statewide survey of significant natural resources -- identified the Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, a nearly 5-acre dry gravel prairie. John White designed the survey nearly 50 years ago. He returned to try and convince the Airport Authority to preserve the prairie.

“I drove 183 miles to be here today,” said White. “And as I drove north to Winnebago County, I went past just one prairie that is comparable to the Bell Bowl Prairie in terms of its size and its quality.”

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources reports that only about 25 acres of high-quality dry gravel prairies remain in Illinois. The Prairie is also home to endangered state plants like the Large-flowered BeardTongue and the Prairie Dandelion. Officials from the Chicago Rockford Airport have suggested transplanting some of the rare species of plants that exist in the Bell Bowl Prairie. But White doesn’t think a transplant job is feasible.

“Bell Bowl Prairie is a rare treasure, and it's fragile,” said White. “If you try to move it, it will disintegrate and it will just die away and be replaced by weeds.”

Zack Oakley with the Airport Authority confirmed that construction will begin again come November when the Rusty Patched Bumble Bees foraging season is over. Jennifer Kuroda with Sinnissippi Audubon Society says it's not just about the bumble bee, it’s about the collapse of an entire ecosystem.

“You can't put a price tag on what's here and they're going to destroy,” said Kuroda. “I mean they're saying they spent a few million dollars already, but this is basically irreplaceable. It's irreplaceable and oh my gosh that's so disappointing.”

It’s not just bees and plants. In 2013, two state-threatened Black-billed Cuckoos were found exhibiting breeding behavior at the Bell Bowl Prairie. IDNR confirmed in an email that any animal of concern will remain unaffected as – quote --“the site will be avoided by timing the project when the species are not expected to be present.”

But for Kerry Leigh of the Natural Land Institute, the airport’s expansion into the prairie doesn’t make sense.

“And we can no longer make these compromises,” said Leigh. ”Because we have compromised away the whole, almost of the prairie state. And there's no more room for that. We can't, we can't lose any more. We're reaching our tipping point now.”

Sites on the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory do receive some legal protections from development, but only as long as they are either dedicated as a nature preserve or registered as a Land and Water Reserve with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. And, according to the IDNR, the Bell Bowl Prairie is neither.

The Sinnissippi Audubon Society and the Natural Land Institute will be hosting a public meeting on the status of the prairie this Thursday at Forest Preserves of Winnebago County Headquarters.

In the meantime, the rusty patched bumble bee is keeping the prairie alive for a couple more months.

Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.