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The Endangered Species Act is failing to protect a bumble bee, environmentalists say

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

In Northern Illinois, a multimillion-dollar airport expansion on a rare patch of prairie threatens an endangered bumble bee, and environmentalists say the Endangered Species Act is not helping protect it. Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco reports.

JUANPABLO RAMIREZ-FRANCO, BYLINE: Mary Griswold was recently at a makeshift party outside of the Chicago Rockford International Airport. The group celebrated the emergence of the rusty patched bumble bee, a federally endangered species since 2017.

MARY GRISWOLD: The queen is supposed to come out of hibernation around this time, so that's one of the things that got us motivated to come out today.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: This celebration was the latest in a series of events organized by a grassroots campaign trying to save a rare remnant prairie which is also the site of a proposed $50 million expansion at the Rockford Airport. The bee was found on the prairie last fall, and that was enough to temporarily halt construction. It also triggered an Endangered Species Act consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rob Telfer is with the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. He says saving the bumble bee is linked to saving its habitat.

ROB TELFER: The problem is the Endangered Species Act does not protect remnant prairies.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided against designating critical habitat for the rusty patched bumble bee. That additional protection would require federal agencies to determine that a project using federal dollars would impact threatened or endangered species or their critical habitat. The service concluded that habitat destruction is not the bee's main threat, calling the bee a habitat generalist. That decision ushered in a legal challenge by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The group's Lucas Rhodes argues that habitat remains key.

LUCAS RHODES: The tool is there. It's in the Endangered Species Act. But the Fish and Wildlife Service is just not using that tool in this particular circumstance to protect the bee's habitat, and that's the problem.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would not comment for this story, citing the lawsuit. Neither would airport officials, though they did confirm that the consultation is now in its final phase, and the service has 135 days to deliver a final decision.

The rusty patched bumble bee was once common throughout much of the Midwest and Northeast United States into Canada. It's now disappeared from nearly 90% of its native range.

Margarita Lopez-Uribe teaches entomology at Penn State and has been studying bees for more than two decades. She says habitat loss is a major driver of the bee's demise.

MARGARITA LOPEZ-URIBE: So a lot of areas that used to have very diverse floral resources have now been converted to agriculture or, you know, through urbanization. And basically, there is not a lot of food available.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: Lopez-Uribe adds that, on top of the habitat loss, pesticides and the unknown effects of climate change further complicate life for this bumble bee. The airport has installed a chain-link fence and added a large no trespassing sign to deter people from getting on the land while it's in legal limbo. Conservationist Rob Telfer says he's fine letting the legal process play out, but says the prairie and the bee are worth fighting for.

TELFER: We're out here for a few acres because that's all that's left because we've been giving these tiny little pieces to different projects for, you know, hundreds of years, and we're running out of space.

RAMIREZ-FRANCO: In the meantime, environmentalists and the airport officials are waiting to see if summer on the remnant prairie here will be filled with the sound of bumble bees or bulldozers.

For NPR News, I'm Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco in Rockford.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURYN HILL SONG, "DOO-WOP (THAT THING)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.