SPRINGFIELD -- An Illinois wildlife agency defended its $520,000 program Friday to import prairie chickens from Kansas by plane, a day after an Illinois House Republican blasted the project during a contentious budget debate. An Illinois Department of Natural Resources spokesman told The Associated Press that biologists took 16 flights during March and April to transport 91 birds to a habitat preserve near Effingham. The flights cost a total of about $7,400 this spring, the first year of a three-year program largely funded by federal grants.
IDNR spokesman Chris Young said the greater prairie chicken is a state endangered species, with a dwindling population of 70 birds before the program launched.
"It's sort of a signature bird of the tall grass prairie," Young said, adding that the birds inflate bright orange sacs and make a sound similar to blowing air across the top of an open pop bottle. "It's that sort of sound that you hear on a spring morning in prairies, which is something that most people have never heard because the birds are so rare now."
Republican state Rep. Bill Mitchell of Forsyth called the program "bizarre" and questioned its cost during a heated 10-hour House budget debate on Thursday, where House Democrats passed a $37.3 billion budget that relies on making a temporary income tax increase permanent.
"Using Air Illinois to fly prairie chickens from Kansas ... it's too bizarre to make it up," Mitchell said.
According to the IDNR website, the project used $337,500 in federal wildlife grants and $181,730 in state funds and private donations. The state money comes from hunting and fishing license fees. The grants can only be used for conservation-related projects, not general budget items such as education or services.
Young said the agency used two-engine state planes rather than trucks to transport the birds because it's less stressful for the animals and has less employee costs. He said the number of birds per flight depends on how many biologists can catch during each trip to Kansas, which has a healthier prairie chicken population. The program calls for the state to bring in a total of 300 birds in three years.