09/16/2011 11:28 am ET Updated Nov 16, 2011

Illinois Is Broke but Still Raising Pheasants for Cheney-Style Hunting

The state of Illinois may be broke (like most states after the 2008 economic meltdown) but you can still shoot tame pheasants that the state has hatched and raised expressly for your recreational pleasure at Illinois state parks this fall.

The state-sponsored "controlled hunts" of pen-raised pheasants on state lands include sites for children ages 10 to 15. That will tear them away from their violent video games!


During the economic meltdown of 2008, Kelley Quinn, an Illinois Office of Management and Budget spokesperson, told the Pantagraph, "Raising pheasants at a financial loss, just so they can be killed, is not one of our top priorities when the state is facing a $750 million budget gap for FY08." But the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which administers the "pheasant propagation centers," went ahead and bred the pellet-ready pheasants anyway. Seventy-eight thousand of them. And it's still at it.

Disputes about the cost of the pheasant breed and shoot program date back to at least 1992 when state estimates revealed that the program was paying $14.33 per bird. Other states pay more than that.

But Department spokesperson Ann Mueller cautioned the public to not overact to the figures because they include salaries of people who mow picnic grounds or plant sunflowers in dove fields at "multiple-use" game propagation facilities. (Where doves are also hunted.) That does not mean, however, that the program, or birds, are self-sustaining, added Mueller.

"People are under the impression that the program pays for itself 100 percent, but it just plain doesn't," she said. In point of fact, Illinoisans pay for three state-run breeding facilities including the high tech 20,000 square foot Helfrich Wildlife Propagation Center on the southern edge of Edward R. Madigan State Park near Lincoln, IL where as many as 150,000 pheasants are hatched and raised in 12 acres of outdoor pens every year.

During the 2004-2005 season, the state of Illinois spent eight dollars per bird for 65,000 pheasants, according to Illinois DNR Advisory Board minutes. Officially, the $520,000 the pheasants cost should be funded by hunters' fees. But according to the State's own minutes, it isn't. Fees would have to be raised by two-thirds to cover "the costs of operating the wildlife propagation centers," say the minutes from the April 18, 2005 DNR board meeting at Rend Lake Resort.

A visit to the Helfrich Wildlife Propagation Center facility in Lincoln during the spring revealed an expanse of flight cages, off a secluded road, that were empty in the interval between delivery of ready birds and the start of the next propagation crop.

The facility is "very similar to a chicken or turkey farm," Ron Willmore, who was the site superintendent in 2004, told the Pantagraph, "except for what happens to them." Pheasants wear plastic blinders on their beaks for the same reason battery hens are debeaked: so they so won't attack each other in the crowded conditions. Birds not shot by hunters are killed by other animals, vehicles or cold winters admit DNR officials.

Many outdoor columnists denounce gratuitous, Cheney-style put-and-take hunting as barely a sport. "Watching pen-raised pheasants lumber into the air is not my favorite form of upland game hunting," writes the Journal Star's Jeff Lampe. "Give me wild roosters any day over their fat, dumb domesticated cousins."

But some outdoors enthusiasts claim that artificial pheasant propagation is necessary to meet the unquenchable demand for birds from pheasant hunters now that wild populations have all but vanished. And some states even recruit children to raise the very birds they can later shoot -- a fun hobby if you don't get too attached.

"Put-and-take hunting is the last readily available land access for working family hunters," said the late Jerry Rodeen of Pheasants Forever, an advocacy group which squeezed Illinois legislators for the propagation program's reprieve when it was facing a budgetary ax. "They are the only places these young men and women can hunt and be assured of a good shot," he told the State Journal-Register. Birds are easy to shoot because they have not seen without blinders until their day of freedom.

What really fuels the tax-payer hunting programs is not demand -- boys and girls begging their parents to let them hunt -- but a desire to keep hunting from dying out as a sport, like boxing, especially among youth. "When hunters lose access to places to hunt, they become discouraged and quit the sport," Rodeen admitted to the Pantagraph.

In fact, the entire purpose of "Families Afield" initiatives, which have passed in so many state legislatures, is to keep youth hunting alive. The laws have loosened child age requirements and other restrictions.

Nineteen years ago the Journal Star alerted its readers that, "Illinois schools are losing money, state parks are scheduled to close and some state workers only recently started getting their paychecks on time. But pheasant hunters around the state still have reason to smile: Illinois will spend $1.4 million this year to mate, hatch and raise ring-neck pheasants for hunting at 16 state conservation areas. And it will recover only $1 million of that." The Star could run the same paragraph today.