The statement from Daniel Suarez, Conservation Manager, Illinois/Indiana is in response to the proposed destruction of the Bell Bowl Prairie as part of the Chicago Rockford International Airport expansion plan that would mark an irreversible ecological and cultural loss for the State of Illinois.
"Bell Bowl Prairie is a remnant prairie, providing habitat for rare and threatened species of wildlife and creating wellbeing for the thousands of birders and prairie enthusiasts across the state. Today, there is less than one-hundredth of one percent (0.01%) of original, remnant prairie remaining in the state of Illinois, approximately 2,500 acres. Of these 2,500 acres, only 148 acres across the state are remnant gravel hill prairies like Bell Bowl. This permanent loss of Illinois’ natural heritage must not be exacerbated by the continued destruction of the few prairie acres that remain.
Bell Bowl Prairie, while small, is a reminder of what Illinois once was: a vast expanse of prairies, savannas, wetlands, and woodlands as far as the eye can see. These connected habitats provided opportunities for thousands of species of plants, birds, insects, mammals, fungi and more to prosper for thousands of years. Today, however, wildlife faces a fragmented landscape that provides more barriers and obstacles than opportunities for species to thrive. Over time, we’ve compressed that vast expanse into a few, tiny remnants where species suffer and their populations decline. Just this past week, 23 species of birds and wildlife were removed from the endangered species list and officially declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The grassland birds that call Bell Bowl Prairie home are amongst the fastest-declining suite of birds in North America. Grassland dependent bird species have lost 53% of their population over the past 50 years. (Rosenberg et al. 2019). These species have suffered due to conversion to agriculture, urban development, and habitat fragmentation. Grassland birds build their nests directly on the ground, and benefit from large-acreage prairies where predators have more difficulty in finding them. During the day, these birds quietly forage for insects along the ground. Remnant prairies like Bell Bowl often have higher plant diversity and presence of rare plant species that in turn harbor rare insects, securing a diversity of food options for birds who undergo some of the longest migrations in the western hemisphere. When a remnant prairie is destroyed, there is no scientific way of replicating that assemblage of plants, animals, and soil biota anywhere else.
Grassland dependent bird species like the Bobolink, a long-distance migrant that spends its winters in the grasslands of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, rely on prairies in Illinois and the upper Midwest for their breeding habitat in the summer. A Species in Greatest Need of Conservation in Illinois, Bobolink have been declining at an alarming -6.76% average annual rate across their range since 1966 (Sauer et al. 2016). However, at northeastern Illinois prairies that are effectively protected and managed, Bobolink are actually increasing at a rate of 2% annually over the past ten years (Bird Conservation Network, 2013). Sites like Bell Bowl Prairie, which has been managed by staff and volunteers for years, need to be protected to ensure a future for rare birds like Bobolink and the Illinois State Endangered Loggerhead Shrike, another resident of Bell Bowl Prairie. Because they only live in Illinois during the breeding season, it is our responsibility to all of the Western Hemisphere to ensure the remaining habitats of threatened grassland birds are preserved and enhanced, not destroyed.
The proposed development of this prairie would jeopardize the existence of one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world and by default the rare flora and fauna contained therein. Audubon Great Lakes, a regional office of National Audubon Society, and our 52,000 members in Illinois support halting construction until a more thoughtful plan can be developed that best represents the interests of all stakeholders.
As residents of The Prairie State, protecting the remaining acres of this crucial ecosystem is essential to ensure the survival of our precious remaining prairies and prairie birds."