Bell Bowl Prairie Activists Stay Steadfast as a Rare Habitat Remains in Limbo

With planned construction on hold, advocates are fighting fatigue and rallying support for a small but species-rich grassland in Illinois.

One 35-degree morning in April, a group of activists—bundled up but upbeat—toted large animal cutouts and posters along a roadside in Rockford, Illinois. They’d assembled to celebrate the imminent emergence of bumble bee queens. 

The day’s six-legged honorees would soon awaken from hibernation in a nearby patch of habitat called Bell Bowl Prairie, which advocates have spent the better part of a year trying to save from bulldozers. “Even though we are fighting to save it, it is still here, and we can still celebrate that it’s here,” says Jillian Neece, a community organizer for the prairie with Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.

In 2019, the Chicago-Rockford International Airport initiated a $50 million expansion project to create space for more cargo planes and add hundreds of jobs to the region. But Bell Bowl Prairie, which lies on the airport’s property, would be largely paved over and bisected by a new road. Though the airport says it notified media at the project’s start, local environmentalists didn’t know about it until last summer when a birder spotted earth movers on the prairie. By that point construction activities had already cut the 22-acre parcel down to 14 acres.

The work has been at a standstill since August, however, when Illinois Department of Natural Resources employees recorded two endangered rusty patched bumble bees at the site. The discovery brought construction to a halt that was originally set to expire last November, after the insects’ foraging season. Following a lawsuit that activists filed in late October, the new work date shifted to March, then to June as federal agencies looked again at how construction could affect the bee. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is set to decide by fall whether the project can continue after an agreement with the airport ends on October 15.

In the short term, this is a victory for environmentalists—the prairie will remain safe for another summer, and the movement has more time to organize. But the activists aren’t holding their breath: Neece feels it’s unlikely the FWS will halt construction, since this isn’t the endangered bee’s only habitat. Instead, the activists are brainstorming last-ditch efforts to reroute the new road and trying to boost morale. “We can definitely feel some people burning out, especially with multiple deadlines that we’ve been working against,” Neece says.

To fight the fatigue, local organizers have rallied activists to sign petitions, contact elected officials, protest outside Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker’s Chicago home, and raise legal funds. And as the April celebration demonstrated, they’ve also gotten creative. “We’ve had people who’ve done drawings and paintings and people who’ve done street performance—being bees—and just all kinds of fun things to bring awareness to the issue,” says Kerry Leigh, executive director of the Natural Land Institute (NLI).

Some activists have started conversations with sustainability representatives from UPS and Amazon, which ship cargo through Rockford airport, in hopes that the companies might release statements in support of the prairie’s protection, Neece says. One Facebook group member even suggested calling the White House. NLI hopes to work with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, part of the state natural resources department, to get Bell Bowl Prairie protected status. That would require the airport’s approval, however, which doesn’t appear likely. (Airport officials declined to comment for this story.)

To make clear what’s at stake, activists recently touted new evidence that small habitats like Bell Bowl Prairie can have outsize importance for biodiversity. In a paper published in March, researchers analyzed 32 datasets from around the world and found that small habitats, when totaled to equal the size of one large one, hold more biodiversity and declining species. “We just have a lot of very small patches left,” says Carleton University research fellow Federico Riva, who co-authored the paper. “We are wasting a lot of conservation opportunities by letting these small patches go without consideration.”

Recognizing the study’s relevance, Neece shared it with the more than 4,000 members of the Save Bell Bowl Prairie Facebook group. “This is still something that’s worth our time,” she says. “We know that there are threatened and endangered species that live there and that pass through there on their migrations.”

While the bee is this standoff’s legal basis, the prairie is more than just a pollinator habitat. It’s home to imperiled plants, including large-flowered beardtongue and prairie false dandelion, and supports birds such as the state endangered Loggerhead Shrike and state threatened Black-billed Cuckoo, as well as Bobolinks, Bell’s Vireos, and 90 other species, according to eBird. Plus, Leigh says, it’s a remnant habitat that’s been around since the last retreat of glaciers from Illinois about 10,000 years ago. NLI uses remnants as reference points to know how restored land should look. “When we no longer have these sites to refer back to,” she says, “we’re going to no longer know where we’re going.”

To reduce its impacts on this ancient habitat, the airport's latest plan includes an updated construction design that removes a stormwater detention area included in earlier plans. That change would save about 3.9 additional acres of prairie, leaving 6.2 total acres intact after construction, according to a draft biological assessment that the Federal Aviation Administration submitted to the FWS in April as part of the ESA consultation process triggered by the bee sighting.

In addition, the airport proposed conservation measures such as planting a 52-acre pollinator habitat at a different site, barring pesticide use on the remaining prairie, and limiting any ground-disturbing activity to before March 15 to prevent growth of flowers that would draw bees to nest there during construction. Although the project would reduce the bee’s foraging habitat on the property by 60 percent and “is likely to adversely affect” the species, the project shouldn’t jeopardize its existence, the assessment says, as long as the airport takes those mitigating steps.

The grassroots activists aren’t convinced. And so, as summer brightens Bell Bowl Prairie, they’re bracing for a decision that might not go their way. They’re doing everything they can think of—contacting officials, exploring legal options, staging performances as pollinators—to save this vibrant slice of nature. “We need to kick it in gear,” Neece says. Birds are singing and bees are buzzing, but October isn’t far off.