Sfc. Luke Hortenstine of Ramsey hugs Illinois Conservation Police Officer Matt Graden at the farewell banquet following a week-long hunting trip for wounded veterans recovering from their injuries. Photo by Chris Young.

Looking back at top outdoors stories

January 02, 2014 at 01:43 PM
Floods, drought, deer and ducks topped outdoors news in Illinois this year. But there also was good news for state parks and rare birds stopping by. And don't forget the story of wounded vets on journey of healing.

1. Firearm deer season drop

Probably the most-discussed story of the year is the 25 percent drop in the firearm deer season harvest.

Hunters killed a preliminary total of 74,191 deer during the seven-day firearm season Nov. 22-24 and Dec. 5-8, according to figures provided by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

That compares with the 99,546 deer taken during the 2012 firearm season.

Hunters expressed concern about the severity of this fall’s epizootic hemorrhagic disease outbreak, and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ efforts to combat chronic wasting disease and reduce the number of deer/vehicle collisions.

Hunters say efforts to reduce deer numbers may have gone too far. They also say EHD may have been more severe and killed more deer than first thought.

DNR tracks reports of EHD, but not all deer that are killed by disease are found or reported.

Deer hunting comes to a close Jan. 19.

We’ll see what’s next for Illinois deer hunters after biologists have time to crunch the numbers.

2. Record flooding on the Illinois River

At Havana, the river topped the 1943 record flood, and for the first time, water flowed over a portion of the Thompson Lake Levee that surrounds The Nature Conservancy’s Emiquon Preserve.

Levees and seawalls mostly protected cities along the river, although farm fields were flooded and transportation was disrupted when bridges and roads were closed by high water.

The levee was built to protect land for farming after the Thompson Lake was drained in the 1920s. It can withstand river levels of 27 feet. The previous record flood level, in 1943, was 27.1 feet. According to the National Weather Service the Illinois River crested at 27.78 feet on April 25.
Water flowed into Emiquon at the lower south end of the levee that runs perpendicular to Illinois 78/97.

Conservancy officials said backwater sites such as Emiquon could someday act to store floodwater during severe flooding events.

3. Two summers of drought

On the heels of record flooding, came a second summer of drought.

While the drought was hard on crops, it allowed for a second consecutive fall of good waterfowl habitat in the Illinois River Valley (see related story below). Fall migration, while shortened by an early freeze-up, featured record peak numbers by a number of species, including northern pintails.
Drought also gets some of the blame for back-to-back Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease outbreaks in white-tailed deer.

DNR received reports of about 3,000 dead deer from 87 counties in 2012 and 1,220 from 63 counties this summer and fall.

4. First otter trapping season a success

Illinois trappers took just over 2,000 river otters during the 2012-13 trapping season; the first time trappers could legally catch them since 1929.
Based on population estimates, biologists expected somewhere between 1,200 and 1,800 otters to be taken.

High fur prices helped increase participation.

Trapping license sales also were up from 4,996 in 2011-12 to 6,384 last season.

5. Cougars return

An Illinois Conservation Police Officer shot a cougar – also known as a puma, mountain lion or catamount — near Morrison in Whiteside County.
The cougar was five to six feet long and weighed about 100 pounds.

Police found the animal hiding in a concrete tunnel beneath a corncrib.

The cat’s shooting sparked debate on how the state of Illinois should respond to the return of top predators like cougars and wolves.
Another cougar snapped by a trail camera in Macoupin County remains unconfirmed.

6. Sustainability funds

After a decade of slashed budgets and swept funds, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources got a little relief when the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill to provide additional funding for state parks.

The “Sustainability Bill,” passed at the end of 2012, began to generate some money for Illinois State Parks this year.

The bill created a $2 surcharge on license plate renewals and allowed DNR to charge fees for certain services that had been performed for free.
The license plate surcharge is expected to generate $20 million — $10 million for capital projects and $10 million for administration.

New fees for services such as endangered species consultation, and a $15 sticker on off-highway vehicles and motorcycles, for example, should generate up to $10 million.

7. Shutdown shuts down hunting opportunities

The 16-day federal government shutdown closed many National Wildlife Refuges just as hunting seasons were getting under way, causing the cancellation of hunting opportunities, including youth hunts.

8. Gun control debate spills over

Gun control debates were in high gear early in 2013.

Dozens of vendors, including retailing giant Cabela’s, pulled out of an outdoors show in Pennsylvania when organizers banned the display of assault rifles. Some of those vendors made their way to the Field & Stream Illinois Deer & Turkey Expo in Springfield.
9. Spoonbill lands — briefly

A roseate spoonbill, a tropical bird normally found along the Gulf Coast, was seen at Lake Springfield during Thanksgiving weekend. It was the first record of the bird in Sangamon County.

10. HOOAH hunters

Six wounded veterans came to Illinois to hunt, relax and take a break from the hard work of recovery this fall as part of the 2013 Sugar Grove Nature Center & HOOAH Deer Hunt for Heroes.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police Officer Matt Graden and his hunting partner Tom Huffington worked together to bring the soldiers to Illinois from Fort Knox and Fort Campbell in Kentucky, where HOOAH (Healing Outside of a Hospital) is based.

Chris Young can be reached at 341-8487 or .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow him at twitter.com/ChrisYoungPSO.