Stories and issues that shaped the outdoors in 2012
The State Journal-Register
Looking back at 2012, the severe drought has to be the top outdoors story of the year. It touched everything, from agriculture and the economy to fish and wildlife habitat.
But if I went by website traffic alone, the appearance of a cougar (or cougars) roaming Illinois just before firearm deer season would be the top story.
So, what follows is an unscientifically compiled list of the top outdoors stories of 2012, and a list of conservationists who made significant contributions last year (or during their lives), giving us all hope for the future.
Your list might be different, but debating the significance of the events from the past year is half the fun.
I’ll go first.
Drought of 2012
The drought we thought ended with periods of rain in the late summer is back.
n Summer fish kills looked horrific and smelled worse.
Anglers feared the worst, especially after particularly bad fish kills at Powerton Lake south of Peoria and a muskie die-off at Spring Lake.
The good news is fall lake surveys didn’t bear out the pessimistic outlook, and fish populations look strong. See: http://tinyurl.com/c673bm6
Dry conditions were a boon to wetland vegetation along the Illinois River. Migrating ducks flocked in above average numbers and then stayed to feast on the food that grew all summer. See: http://tinyurl.com/bt273wf
Early fall brought an unwelcome outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in deer. It was the worst outbreak in five years, possibly longer.
Biting midges spread the virus that causes EHD. Deer develop high fevers and often die in the vicinity of water.
Like politics, EHD’s effects were local. Some counties lost dozens or even hundreds of deer to EHD. Exact counts are impossible to determine because only those deer found and reported are tallied.
Hunters fretted and argued about the long-term effects, but the conversation went on hold once the archery season opened.
Thirty stories about EHD from Illinois and all over the Midwest have been published since July. Search “epizootic” to see archived items at: http://www.PrairieStateOutdoors.com.
Federal Farm Bill expires
Former Illinois Department of Natural Resources upland game biologist John Cole once told a group of outdoors writers the Farm Bill is the single biggest conservation program in the United States, and everything else pales in comparison.
The 2008 Farm Bill that expired Sept. 30 also contained funding for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
CRP provides rental payments to landowners who agree to take erosion-prone or marginal farmland out of production and plant grass or trees. About 30 million acres are under contract nationwide. The programs cost about $2 billion in fiscal 2012.
A version of the 2012 Farm Bill passed by the U.S. Senate would cost about $1 trillion spread over five years. Most of that money — about 70 percent — goes to nutritional assistance programs, including food stamps.
CRP gets at least partial credit for the resurgence in numbers of some grassland birds and for providing habitat for pheasants and even nesting ducks.
The 2012 Farm Bill fell victim to congressional gridlock, and its future is uncertain as national leaders are unable to agree on tax policy and budget-reductions. Millions of acres are leaving CRP as contracts expire and are not renewed.
Read an interview with Daniel Wrinn, public policy director for Ducks Unlimited, published last September as the 2008 Farm Bill was about to expire: http://tinyurl.com/colqn5k
State parks funding
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources was facing its own financial crisis, a projected deficit of $20 million by the end of this fiscal year June 30.
A combination of budget cutting and new revenue from a $2 surcharge on license plate renewals is putting the agency on more stable footing. License plate renewals will go from $99 to $101. DNR said at least some of the money will provide staffing and make repairs at state parks.
The estimated backlog for capital projects and repairs is $750 million.
DNR director Marc Miller said it will take time for those revenues to be available. Read an interview with Miller here: http://tinyurl.com/blb9moy
Starved Rock sand mine
If you think this is a “not in my backyard” issue for residents of LaSalle County and neighbors of Starved Rock State Park, you may want to reconsider.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources recently issued a permit for a sand-mining operation just outside Starved Rock State Park. The St. Peter sandstone found in and around the park is a key raw material used in hydraulic fracturing, a method used to extract oil and gas from shale and other formations of rock where the resource is hard to reach.
Cracks in the rock are forced open by injected fluids and “frac” sand is used to hold the cracks open. St. Peter sandstone sand is round, allowing liquid to flow around it.
The location of the mine also puts the DNR between a block of sandstone and a hard place.
The DNR is charged with both protecting state park resources and issuing permits for mining. DNR says it has to follow the law precisely when granting permits. Other mining operations already are located around Starved Rock.
Proponents say jobs are on the line. They fear too much regulation could halt an “energy renaissance” in the United States.
Opponents say DNR should try harder to protect Starved Rock and the local tourism business driven by the state’s most popular park. And they’ve filed a lawsuit to force the issue.
Around the country, conflicts between resource protection and energy development are cropping up.
n Energy interests oppose federal listing of the lesser prairie chicken, whose numbers are declining. See: http://tinyurl.com/c8tfbf9
n Deer hunters and landowners in Texas are concerned about noise and dust ruining the atmosphere of their hunts: http://tinyurl.com/bslfy5z
Starved Rock’s local issue is playing out on a national stage. Outdoorsmen and women should pay attention to what happens next.
Big cats roam Illinois
Four confirmed sightings of a cougar (or cougars) in Illinois this past fall got everyone talking.
All four were confirmed thanks to trail camera photographs that allowed positive identification.
The sightings gave wildlife biologists the chance to talk about what it takes to consider a sighting ironclad. They also alerted the public to the need to report sightings that have solid evidence.
In case you missed it, here’s the final story: http://tinyurl.com/cchtawt
Who knows what will show up next on Illinois trail cameras?
The Alabama rig
It was the biggest thing in fishing last winter then the feeding frenzy seemed to die down. Was the device, which allows anglers to present up to five lures at once, just a flash in the pan? Get the latest updates and our story from last January here: http://tinyurl.com/d8b66nx
Those who went above and beyond in 2012
Ken and Marcia Polhamus of Galena were honored as finalists in Field and Stream’s “Heroes of Conservation” in 2012. Read about their efforts to get kids outside here: http://tinyurl.com/co9hs72
Partners for Parks and Wildlife: PPW worked with state Rep. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley, to craft the funding bill for state parks. Forty groups pulled together to work out a solution. The Partners formed during the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fight off sweeps of dedicated funding for open space and natural areas protection. Visit: http://partnersforparksandwildlife.org
Saluting a job well done: Jack Calhoun, who died last March, was considered the leader in re-establishing the white-tailed deer in Illinois. He didn’t work alone, by any means, but Calhoun gets a lot of the credit for providing leadership and becoming a national expert. Read about his life here: http://tinyurl.com/c5qtglm
Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.