by Martha Rosenberg
At first it looked like a win for environmentalists.
That's why for decades the dirty little secret of states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York is they've been breeding their own birds for fans of "controlled hunts" and to fill state coffers.
In July, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and Pheasants Forever (PF) acquired 313 new acres in central Illinois for bird habitat and outdoor recreation.
But read a little closer and you see the acreage and birds are actually for shooting recreation, to some an oxymoron.
And what's being preserved is the right of the 10% of the state who hunt to do so on public lands.
Funds for the public hunting preserve were also provided by the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, a Commonwealth Edison charity, and a state wildlife incentive grant.
"We all know the importance of habitat restoration for wildlife," said IDNR Acting Director Sam Flood. "If there are no grasses, there are no birds. With well-planned habitat restoration...we're making a great investment in wildlife and outdoor recreation enhancement."
"The property already has thriving wildlife habitat for pheasants and bobwhite quail and will require little maintenance before it is open for public use," added Connie Waggoner, Illinois Department of Natural Resources manager, division of reality and planning.
Of course with 497,439 acres of public hunting grounds, Illinois hunters don't need more land for "public use." What they need is more birds. 1
"The big birds look like real, honest-to-goodness wild pheasants," says D'arcy Egan of the Plain Dealer, "but they're not. They have little chance of surviving in the wild, and are simply expensive fodder for Ohio hunters." 2
John Husar, the late Chicago Tribune outdoor reporter, agreed. "If they're off in some dumb spot, like the middle of a cut milo strip, hopping around and wondering at the fuss, you can figure they arrived in a basket," he wrote after an IDNR Conservation Foundation Celebrity Quail Hunt. "Let's all hope our imaginations hold up." 3
Not surprisingly, the cost of breeding bullet ready birds is as unsustainable as the birds themselves.
In the 1990s, Illinois was spending up to $14.33 per bird and losing $400,000 a year. 4
Ohio spent up to $11 per bird and could only provide 15,000 pheasants for an estimated 400,000 licensed hunters wanting a sure shot. 2
Pennsylvania, producing 200,000 birds a year, no doubt spends less. But when it spent $101,630 on a leg band rebate program to find out the fate of the pen raised birds, it discovered 55 percent of the roosters and 52 percent of the hens eluded hunters. Tell that to the auditors. 2
And New York? The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's actually recruits average citizens like you and me to do the breeding in our own backyards.
"The Day-Old Pheasant Chick Program makes day-old chicks available at no cost to participants who are able to provide a brooding facility, a covered outdoor rearing pen and an adequate release site," it says on its web site.
"Applicants who meet these requirements will receive the pheasant chicks in April, May or June. The pheasants can be released when they are 8 weeks old or older and no later than the end of New York's pheasant hunting season, which varies according to region. All release sites must be approved by the DEC and must be open for public hunting."
How many flocks in homemade pens perished in the recent heat wave? Or during "mail" delivery?
So, actually the IDNR/Pheasant Forever partnership is a good thing. It gets the state out of the battery bird business before undercover cameras show the overcrowded pheasants wearing goggles--to prevent pecking--or bird flu does them in. 5
And it makes the state look good.
Because hunting groups like Pheasants Forever have so mastered the art of environmentspeak, when they rhapsodize about habitat restoration, wetland conservation and outdoor recreation, it looks like the 313 new acres are for everyone.
They even include programs for women, the disabled and disadvantaged children in the outdoor fun. No doubt there's a drinking bowl for Buddy.
But before you put on your running shoes or back pack, make sure you wear you bullet proof vest. Because hunters come first in Illinois.
1 Evansville Courier & Press (IN) August 6, 2006
2 The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) September 26, 1999
3 Chicago Tribune November 17, 1996
4 The Peoria Journal Star (IL) February 23, 1992
5 Dunn County News (WI) October 12, 2005
Martha Rosenberg is staff cartoonist for the Evanston Roundtable.