Illinois' pheasant program escapes state budget knife
Springfield, Ill. — It’s going to cost more for resident hunters, but Illinois’ fall controlled pheasant hunts appear to be safe from the state’s budget crunch.
Program Manager Terry Musser said resident hunting permit fees will be raised to $30 this coming season, up $5 from last year. Non-resident fees will stay the same at $35.
A single hunt, with two pheasants released per hunter, is estimated to cost the program $42, so the fee increase pulls the resident permit closer to fully sustaining the popular hunts.
It was the threat of ending the hunts altogether in 2008, under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, that moved the state Legislature to change the law to allow the state to gradually increase the fees over time, with the intention that the program would be completely paid for by permit fees.
At the time, both resident and non-resident hunters were paying $15 for a permit. The fees were upped to $25 for residents and $35 for non-residents, and had not been raised since.
So, the increase brings the resident fees, which make up more than 80 percent of all permits sold, a little closer to that goal, Musser said.
The state is trying to blunt the effect of sticker shock by raising the fees gradually, though Musser said that whenever fees are increased, hunter trips decline, only to gradually rebound after a year or two.
“It came back a little bit, probably every year,” said Mike Wickens, the site superintendent at Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Fish & Wildlife Area in west-central Illinois. “We’re just about back to normal.”
Musser said the drop-off in participation typically ranges from 8 to 17 percent, depending on the site, and the economic factors, among other things.
“As we increase fees, that’s typically what happens,” Musser said. “This year, we’re projecting somewhere in the middle.”
To combat the expected decline, the state is planning a slight reduction in the number of birds it’s hatching for the hunt.
“The key point for hunters is we planned this fall to maintain the release of two pheasant per hunter trip,” Musser said. “We expect to be able to do that. That’s not different from any other year.”
Musser said he expects that participation will be back to normal by the 2014 season.
At the Des Plaines Fish & Wildlife Area, site Superintendent Jeff Wepprecht is expecting a small decline in participation. Its close proximity to Chicago has made it the most popular site for the controlled hunts in the state, Musser said.
“Des Plaines is always on the lower end of hunter decline,” Musser said.
But Wepprecht’s bigger concern is staffing, as the latest round of retirements recently claimed two fulltimers.
“We’re not sure how we’re going to handle [the pheasant hunts] this year,” Wepprecht said. “I would hope that we’d know more by the end of the month [June].”
Musser is aware of the staffing issue, which has hit some sites harder than others.
At Panther Creek, Wickens said his staffing level is the same.
“There have been quite a few people who have retired just this month,” Musser said. “So [how we deal with that] remains to be seen.”
Musser declined to say anything further on the staffing issue.
Musser said the state should have the Controlled Pheasant Hunt website updated by the end of this month, with all the information for the 2012 hunts.
The permit process for the hunts begins on Aug. 6.
And with three hatches already on the ground, and three more coming this month and in July, everything seems to be on schedule, Musser said.
Musser said he has years of statistical data to go on to forecast what the need will be at the 19 sites, where either controlled hunts or the state’s Youth Pheasant Hunts are taking place.
“We also make adjustments as we go through the season, and up through Thanksgiving, we look at what’s going on at all of the sites,” he said. “We ask each of the sites if our projections are accurate, and then we adjust. Most of the time, we’re pretty close.”