If prairie chickens could talk, what would they say about Illinois? They no doubt would complain about their shrinking habitat, which reduced their numbers here to about 40. They might even squawk about how a repopulation effort has led to their becoming the latest symbol of government waste.
It's absurd, of course, to think that the hapless creatures have any inkling about Illinois' financial problems. But taxpayers certainly do, and it's understandable that some would question the value of rebuilding the birds' population. Still, what's needed is a perspective on the costs, and with that a caution about opportunity-seeking criticism.
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First, some background. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources recently began its three-year, $519,000 program in southeastern Illinois where prairie chickens once thrived. Over decades, farming crowded out the grassland habitat of the birds, known for the "booming" call males make as they dance to win a mate. While the species is found elsewhere, it is endangered in the Prairie State and would have little chance of survival here without intervention.
That alarmed conservationists, who developed a program to transport 90 birds from Kansas using planes owned by the Illinois Department of Transportation. The tab for those flights and the only portion of the total bill paid by general Illinois taxpayers was about $7,000. IDNR officials insist that driving would have cost more than flying and would have killed more birds.
Critics have called the program wasteful. Gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner used a crate of the birds' distant cousins -- domestic hens -- at a recent news conference to protest state spending decisions. The display got a lot of attention, even out of state. No governor's candidate has had so much fun since Squeezy the Pension Python cartoons appeared last year, a creation of Gov. Pat Quinn's office to highlight the pension problem.
The irony that hens from farms -- the very industry that caused the prairie chickens' plight -- were used to make a point apparently was lost in the political fun making, but so was the idea that unthoughtful ridicule can backfire.
The state may be rife with examples of waste or financial mismanagement, but the prairie chicken is at best a minor culprit. Distorting its status poses the danger of allowing supporters of the status quo in Illinois to cry that complaints about state spending are based more on politics than fact.
IDNR officials say two-thirds of the costs of the prairie chicken program are paid through federal wildlife preservation grants funded by taxes on guns, boats and fishing equipment. The state's share comes from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses purchased by outdoor enthusiasts, who generally favor wildlife initiatives. The Audubon Society contributed $30,000.
Programs that boost endangered species have long been controversial, and critics may question the value of keeping prairie chickens in Illinois at all. But, charged with protecting plants and animals native to Illinois, the IDNR found a way to fund this project through residents most likely to support it. Similar efforts have revived populations of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and river otters in the state.
It certainly can be useful to spotlight anecdotal examples of wasteful state spending, but with the campaign season warming up, it's important for voters to be mindful of oversimplifications on either side of the political divide and for critics on both sides of that divide to support their cases with legitimate, unequivocal evidence, To do otherwise weakens legitimate goals and gives ammunition to those trying to avoid true change.
All state departments, including the IDNR, will need to reduce their budgets -- that's a fact -- but disingenuous campaigning that shoots arrows willy-nilly at programs will only misdirect honest discussion on spending.