The endangered rusty patch bumblebee is hanging on by a wing and a prairie. And an airport’s expansion plans could destroy the fragile ecosystem the bees call home. But thanks to the efforts from local conservation groups, the bees are safe — for now.
The 10,000-year-old Bell Bowl Prairie in Illinois is an ecological marvel. It’s home to scores of rare and endangered animals and insects like the rusty patch bumblebee. But it’s located in an area that the Chicago Rockford International Airport wanted to bulldoze as part of a 280-acre expansion plan, Smithsonian Magazine said.
The federal government approved those plans after several environment impact studies and assessments to the dismay of environmental groups. One of them, the Natural Land Institute, sued the airport in a last-ditch effort to protect the prairie. The airport is backing off of its plans now and says it will work to save the habitat.
“The FAA is reinitiating consultation under the Endangered Species Act with the USFWS to evaluate impacts to the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, so planned construction initially scheduled to continue on November 1 will be suspended until further consultation is completed,” the airport said in a statement to WTVO. “We anticipate the resumption of the project in the spring of 2022.”
The $50 million expansion will create hundreds of jobs and generate millions in extra tax revenue. But state officials say the Bell Bowl Prairie is far more valuable.
“I applaud the decision by the Rockford Airport Board of Directors to temporarily pause construction on its expansion. I now urge the board to have meaningful dialogue with all parties that takes into account the area’s natural resources, as well as the economic impact of the expansion,” Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara told the news station.
More Animals In Danger as Prairie Lands in Midwest Shrink
More than 22 million acres stretched across Illinois at one point in the state’s history. But now, only about 2,500 acres of prairie remain in The Prairie State, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
More and more conservation groups are turning their focus to saving these endangered habitats from encroaching construction projects. They say these ecosystems are far too valuable to disrupt or destroy.
“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 Illinois state ecologist.
As the prairies vanished, so did the animals that called them home. The Bell Bowl Prairie is one of the few remaining places that insects like the rusty patch bees or the prairie chicken can survive.
“We changed our land-use practices from having a lot of prairie, then to wheat, hay, and alfalfa, and now to vast expanses of corn and soybeans,” Conservation biologist Mark Davis said in 2008. “Prairie chickens used to have 20 million acres of prairie in Illinois. Now, they have around 2,000. At the same time, population size went from 10 to 14 million in the 1860s to the 100 to 200 or so we have today. There just isn’t enough habitat.”