Ancient prairie, home to bees and rare endangered plants, could soon be destroyed at the airport

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Illinois, the state of Prairie, once dominated 22 million acres of grassland and was home to an unimaginable variety of flora and fauna. But now only about one in ten thousand or approximately 2,500 acres of the state’s original grasslands remain.

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The dry gravel grassland, one of the rare grasslands, is threatened with extinction – only 18 acres of high-quality remains. Now, as part of a planned expansion of Chicago-Rockford International Airport, plans are afoot to destroy this valuable five-acre Bell Ball Prairie.

But a growing coalition of environmental groups, scientists and consultants, including local middle school students, is fighting to protect the habitat. Among other reasons, they point out, the bell-ball is home to nearly 150 species and supports a variety of birds and insects, including endangered species such as the rust hornet.

Paul Marcum, a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, says, “These remaining sites are the most important thing in Illinois. I’m worried that a site like this could be destroyed.”

Construction could begin before June 1, as soon as the Fisheries and Wildlife Service’s consultation is complete, the airport said.

Conservationists, meanwhile, are taking action and evaluating their alternatives. How did such a rare and important ecosystem get flattened?

What remains is a small fraction of what it was when settlers arrived in the 1800s. According to the National Park Service, the grasslands in the center of the continent cover about 170 million acres [170 million ha] and cover only 4 percent of its original area.

Unlike the moist, more clay soils that are characteristic of most grasslands, the bell pot is rare because it grows on gravelly rocks. It is a rose with a feathery seed head that supports rare species of plants found in other grasses, including lead, pasqueflower, and prairie smoke. A survey conducted by the Natural Land Institute lists 146 species of plants that grow there.

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