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NEW: Construction expected to resume at Bell Bowl Prairie
A ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration has cleared the way for the Greater Rockford Airport Authority to continue building a road through ancient Bell Bowl Prairie, one of the few remaining gravel hill prairies in Illinois. A remnant of a past glaciation, the prairie is home to endangered birds like Blue Grosbeak and Loggerhead Shrike as well as the endangered Rusty-patched Bumble Bee and rare plants like Pasqueflower and Prairie Dandelion.
The airport authority has the go-ahead to resume construction between now and March 15, when the prairie is off-limits due to rules that protect species between then and Oct. 15. The nonprofit Natural Land Institute, steward of the prairie for decades, has filed a motion seeking a stay from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
“If we win, we may have more time,” said Kerry Leigh, Executive Director of the Natural Land Institute. “But we’re painfully aware that the law we have now protects species but not habitat.”
Prairie advocates are holding a rally tomorrow at the Winnebago County Courthouse at 5 p.m. Anyone wishing to voice their support for the prairie is encouraged to call the office of Gov. J.B. Pritzker. You can find contact information here. The more calls the Governor’s office receives, the better the chance for a solution that saves the prairie.
The airport authority quietly began construction on the prairie in Summer 2021. Work was halted when the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee was found on the property.
The Chicago Tribune wrote a lengthy piece in December that outlined the shortcomings of Illinois’ endangered species rules, featuring the abandoned Black-crowned Night-Heron nests in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and the threat to Bell Bowl.
“The Illinois Department of Natural Resources just makes recommendations,” Leigh said. “With the 21st century issues we have now like climate change, our existing protections are clearly not adequate.”
The challenges to endangered species may sound familiar. Fans of endangered Piping Plovers “Monty” and “Rose” may recall that a music festival on Montrose Beach threatened their first breeding season. Future “mega events” in parks could do the same.
According to Leigh, an ad hoc group of environmental advocates are working behind the scenes longer-term to make enhancements to existing state law regarding endangered species. Until then, it’s communicating the importance of this natural treasure to the Governor and other leaders. It may be the only path toward saving Bell Bowl Prairie.
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