Springfield — Few changes are expected to the state’s waterfowl seasons or to the four-zone system when DNR proposes its five-year plan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this year.
But if hunters have any strong opinions, biologists’ ears are open.
That’s the point of three waterfowl “open houses” scheduled for this month around the state. Randy Smith, DNR’s waterfowl biologist, said the open houses will allow hunters to visit with DNR staff and ask questions about hunting zones and season dates that will be proposed for the 2016-20 seasons.
One big change this year calls for DNR to make its proposal by December, which is earlier than previous years.
“What the Fish and Wildlife Service is doing will be a benefit to hunters in the state because it means hunters will learn about season dates much earlier than in the past,” Smith said.
Under current procedures, DNR is not able to announce waterfowl dates until late summer. Beginning in 2016, those dates should be announced in late spring or early summer.
“It will be nice to have more time to plan because you will have those dates in advance,” Smith said.
Giving USFWS confidence to approve dates earlier in the year is more than two decades of data and science it has built up.
“The Fish and Wildlife folks can now look at information from past seasons and they have a pretty good handle on things,” Smith said. “For us at DNR, it means that we have to get our proposals to them earlier, but the payoff is huge.”
Putting together its state waterfowl proposal for 2016-20 requires input from Illinois duck and goose hunters – thus the open houses. The first one is May 12 at the Des Plaines State Fish and Wildlife Area office. On May 14, hunters are invited to John A. Logan College in Carterville. The third and final open house will be held May 15 at the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center in East Alton.
Smith said feedback gathered at the three open houses will be added to surveys filled out by waterfowl hunters after each season.
DNR biologists will also have on hand the latest aerial waterfowl surveys, weather and freeze-up dates and hunter survey results. Biologists will be on hand to answer questions and interpret data.
Waterfowl hunting zone lines can be changed every five years under federal regulations. DNR also sets respective waterfowl hunting season dates for the same time period every five years.
The upcoming 2015-16 season will be the final season under the current five-year plan, which was set in 2011.
Even with a five-year plan, not everything is set in stone. Changes in environmental conditions and/or waterfowl populations could result in changes to the federal waterfowl hunting regulations, which would require Illinois to adjust proposed season dates.
Smith said hunters tend to be happy with the four-zone structure, which has been in use since 2012.
And he doesn’t expect the string of 60-day duck seasons to end anytime soon.
“No matter where the zone lines are drawn, there is no way to make everyone happy, but we’ve had a lot of positive feedback with the way they are currently drawn,” he said. “Also, hunters seem satisfied with the dates. Some years the weather can play havoc with freezing and all that. We try to do the best we can within the framework the USFWS gives us.”
One example of working within that framework is in the south zone, where the duck season dates have been pushed to the very end of the timeline allowed by the USFWS.
“Hunters in the south zone say they want those late dates, and so far it has worked,” Smith said.
Waterfowl hunters unable to attend the open houses will have the opportunity to review the information presented on the DNR website, under waterfowl hunting, and submit comments via: DNR.email@example.com.