NEWTON – A program to boost Illinois' declining population of greater prairie chickens is becoming an election-year issue, with some turning the bird into a feathered symbol of government financial waste. And like any other discussion of spending in Illinois, the state's poor financial health plays a leading role.
State Sen. Bill Mitchell, a Republican from Forsyth, has complained about what he sees as the absurdity of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources flying prairie chickens from Kansas. And last week, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner used a crate of chickens – they weren't prairie chickens, but domestic hens – as a prop to complain about spending.
But is the criticism fair? Here's a closer look at the DNR's three-year, $519,230 program to try to revive the birds' population in Illinois.
THE BIRDS: Greater prairie chickens, known for the loud cackling and the booming noises males make as they dance around females to try to win mates, once numbered in the millions in Illinois in Abraham Lincoln's time — before the birds' grassland habitat was mostly plowed under for farming.
While their population in some other states is large enough to allow them to be legally hunted, they're now endangered in Illinois, living only on the parcels of south-central land that make up the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, near Newton in Jasper County and Kinmundy in Marion County. Before the reintroduction of 91 birds from Kansas this spring, the population between the two sites had fallen to about 40.
Illinois has the easternmost population of the birds, DNR biologist Scott Simpson said, "so we get (tourists) from all the way to the East Coast."
The program aims to create a viable, self-sustaining population, "somewhere possibly between a hundred and 500 total birds," Simpson said.
THE OBJECTIONS: Rauner's chickens were an eye-catching symbol at his Thursday news conference. They've even inspired a parody Twitter account, @RaunerChicken.
"We have spent over $100,000 flying chickens into our state. We have plenty of chickens in our state and certainly if we were desperate for more, we could drive them," Rauner said.
State Sen. Mitchell's objections to flying the birds were part of his larger, ongoing complaint that the Illinois Department of Transportation should not even have a small fleet of airplanes.
THE REAL COSTS: This is the first of three planned years for the program, with a total budget of $519,230 budget, DNR officials said, adding that none of the money comes from income taxes or other funding sources that could be used to address the state's financial troubles.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's State Wildlife Grant Program is providing $337,500, which must be used to develop and protect wildlife populations and is generated by taxes paid by outdoors enthusiasts on guns, boats and fishing equipment, according to DNR spokesman Chris Young and agency documents.
The state share of the program is $181,730, all from the state's wildlife and fish fund which, like the federal money, doesn't rely on income taxes, Young said. It is generated through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and must be used for wildlife- and habitat-related projects. The Audubon Society says it will add another $30,000.
Rauner's campaign material attributes his over-$100,000 figure to reporting earlier this year by the Illinois Policy Institute and others that divided the total program cost by 91 birds to arrive at a per-bird transport cost of well over $1,000. But the program plans to bring more birds each year. And the bulk of DNR's costs aren't for flying, but for salaries and ongoing work at the sites in Illinois, according to the program budget.
DNR's share of the flight costs was $7,363, according to an invoice from the state Department of Transportation. That, according to DNR, was essentially the cost of fuel.
Transportation spokeswoman Paris Ervin wasn't immediately able to provide costs for pilots and other expenses.
Either way, Simpson and Bob Gillespie of the Illinois Natural History Survey say, driving 16 round-trips of more than 20 hours to Salina, Kansas, would not have been cheap, given fuel, overtime required for drivers and other costs. Gillespie is a natural resources coordinator also involved in the project.
And driving, they say, would probably have killed many birds. Efforts to move prairie chickens by truck in some other states have led to high mortality rates due to stress and long periods spent caged.
Very few of the birds bound for Illinois died. Even now, 90 percent of the male birds are alive and on Prairie Ridge land, Simpson said.
"You're considered successful if you're able to keep 30 to 40 percent of the particular birds," he said.
THE FALLOUT: Simpson and others in the DNR have heard from a number of citizens, about half of whom support the program. Others say the state shouldn't be spending the money.
Simpson isn't shocked by what's happened.
"I've been here for 20 years and it's always been a little controversial, spending dollars for endangered species," he said.