DNR under budget axe while supporters rally

Springfield – DNR is expected be a victim in Illinois’ ongoing
budget battle, even as action groups around the state warn about
repercussions.

In mid-July, Gov. Rod Blagojevich slashed $14 million from DNR’s
budget, part of $1.5 billion in line-item vetoes he made to balance
the 2009 budget submitted by the Illinois General Assembly.
Lawmakers were called back to the Capitol in an attempt to work
things out, but departed July 16 without restoring any of DNR’s
budget.

The cuts to DNR – some estimate 160 jobs could be lost – would
hurt a agency that had already lost a good chunk of funding and
staff over the past six years.

According to American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees, Council 31, there were 1,982 staff members at the DNR in
June of 2001. By June 2003, DNR’s staff totaled 1,615. By 2007,
DNR’s staff had been cut by nearly 25 percent.

Hardest hit has been the Office of Resource Conservation, which
includes biologists who oversee the state’s parks, wildlife and
fish. According to AFSCME, staffing in that office has been cut by
38 percent since 2001.

Instead of idly watching the agency be stripped, some outdoors
groups have become vocal.

For example, the Migratory Waterfowl Hunters Inc., a private
organization, has been seeding and maintaining some areas normally
managed by DNR.

According to Craig Sondker, board adviser for Migratory
Waterfowl Hunters, the organization has been asked to provide more
than $5,000 in seed for migratory birds to Two Rivers National
Wildlife Refuge in Brussels.

It’s not the first time.

“It has been an ongoing thing of DNR, not taking care of
Illinois’ natural resources,” Robert Bryant, president of the
Migratory Waterfowl Hunters, told the Alton Telegraph. “(The state
government) has stripped the DNR to the bare bones.”

Bryant told the newspaper he thinks the DNR funding issues
should be explored and that “the people of Illinois should know
where the money (that is being cut) is going and what (Blagojevich)
is going to use it for.”

Blagojevich’s office said the governor is simply trying to
reduce state spending after the Illinois House of Representatives
failed to pass revenue bills to make up for a $2 billion
shortfall.

The House and Senate are scheduled to return to Springfield in
November, though leaders left the door open for another special
session.

In the meantime, an environmental group called Illinois Action
Project has enlisted an online petition to decry the DNR cuts.

IAP’s petition includes a list of dangers to the cuts, including
elimination of the reporting of deer kills at check points, which
biologists believe will increase the spread of chronic wasting
disease.

IAP also believes the cuts will lead to the elimination of
conservation police officers, which could lead to increased
poaching and violations of laws protecting sensitive natural
areas.

In addition, “the result (of cuts) is inadequate oversight for
managing fish stock, game stock, protecting endangered species,
protecting habitats, combating invasive species, and maintaining
public lands, waterways, and recreational areas,” the IAP
argued.

One major concern is that several state parks could close as a
result of the cuts, though Blagojevich’s office said it’s too soon
to say for sure.

“The agency is still putting together its plan to work within
its new budget,” said Katherine Ridgway, a spokeswoman for
Blagojevich’s office.

One feared victim of the budget was the state’s controlled
pheasant hunting program, which apparently has been spared – even
if only temporarily.

Earlier this year, the governor’s office said it would eliminate
the program, saving roughly $1.3 million.

But proponents of the program balked, arguing that many hunters
find that the program provides their only available upland hunting
opportunities. Also, most pheasant hunting sites host popular youth
pheasant hunts that would also be cut under the plan.

While no official conclusion has been made about the pheasant
program, pheasants used for the fall hunts have been raised and
applications for the 2008 hunts are available on the DNR Web
site.

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