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Through the Lens

Just Talk to Us

Tue, May 23, 2017

**** This originally appeared in the May 2017 print version of Heartland Outdoors**** per multiple requests I am also making it available online.

It seems that ever since Rauner took office, and truthfully even before that, it’s been like pulling hen’s teeth to get information about the WSRC.

From the time the initial closure was announced in 2015 right up until today it’s just been one big ball of confusion for locals and out of town shooters alike.

What’s open? What isn’t open? What’s the plan? Is the Shooting complex really accepting applications for summer employment after just laying off all but one employee? These are just of few of the questions that regularly surround the WSRC.

While I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the communications office at DNR has been most pleasant, during phone calls and emails; the problem remains that they just haven’t given me any information or answers to the multitude of questions I’ve posed to them. These questions have all been pretty basic, and it’s not like operations of the WSRC are a matter of state security. Finally, I had to give in send FOIA requests for a few specific questions.
I drive through the complex on at least a weekly basis, sometimes several times a week and it’s next to impossible to tell from a drive through what a person can and can’t currently utilize.

As a test, I took a drive through the complex, pretending that I was an out of town visitor seeing things for the first time.  Trash barrels at the boat ramp were full to overflowing. The signage at the lakes was somewhat raggedy and the regs posted didn’t match the regs listed in the 2017 Fishing Guide. That meant I should visit the site office for clarification. I also had my trusty canine companion along because the WSRC is listed as dog trial and training site. So, off I went to the DNR office to sign in for dog training, and to inquire about the fishing regs, but upon arriving at what had previously been the site office on Vendor Row – all I found was a dark locked office.

No signage directing me to a different location within the complex, no signage explaining where to obtain my fishing license, dog training permit or sign in. Nothing. Just a locked door and closed office.  DNR vehicles and machinery were parked in various areas – vehicles that have no staff to use them. Leading me to wonder if these very vehicles, tractors, and equipment couldn’t be used at some of the other DNR sites who are struggling with old, worn out, barely operable equipment.

Passing through the various shooting areas, piles of shotgun shell hulls were scattered throughout – odd bits and pieces of shooting range equipment also just sitting here and there.  Some of the facades for Single Action Shooting stages were gone with just the steel targets remaining.

I headed over to the main event center and was once again met with locked doors. Finally after placing a phone call to the office number, I was instructed that in order to access the building and the event planner/executive director I should come around to a side door. Again – no signage, no way for the general public to even hazard a guess.

I returned home more than a little disappointed and baffled. It’s hard to imagine how someone unfamiliar with the WSRC could have a good visit and enjoy the property with things the way they are.

Just a few days later, friends who like to utilize the campgrounds at the shooting complex during dog trials in the area reported a less than pleasant experience as well.  They had booked their campsite on Reserve America only to arrive and discover that campground and site they had reserved through Reserve America was closed. After a good bit of hunting around for a staff member, they were eventually placed in the one campground that is currently open.

Additionally, the shower houses etc. were still inaccessible due to trams blocking the roads into the area containing the showers. These trams are also blocking the roadways into an area that contains some good bank fishing areas. So it appears that those areas are also closed, unless you access them by boat.

However, if one visits the Reserve America camping reservation website – there are several campgrounds that are open and available for booking.

Even the facility’s website is confusing. When clicking on Hours of Operations and Holidays we find the following information:
“All Shoot Disciplines (Trap, Skeet, Sporting Clays, Pistol, Rifle) are by event only. Please review the activity calendar to find an event you can participate in at the WSRC. Regular Hours (May 1, 2017 - October 31, 2017) Main Event Center (East Wing) Office Hours - Monday through Friday 8:00 am - 4:00 pm.  Shoot Hours - Event Only. “

Additionally, the following information is listed in several other areas of the website:
“NOTE:  The World Shooting and Recreational Complex is currently working with organized groups to utilize the shooting aspect of the facility. At this time, only organized groups that have signed an agreement with the WSRC will be able to shoot. If you are interested in hosting an organized event, whether it have a shooting component or not, please contact our main office. Please call (618)295-2700 extension 304, Monday-Friday, from 8:00a – 4:00p. As events are approved, they will be listed on our website calendar. Thank you all for your continued support of the WSRC.”

Then there is the uber confusing link for the summer employment application with IDNR and the WSRC. Wait – So now the WSRC is hiring summer help – after just jettisoning all its regular employees? One must wonder how that makes those recently “reassigned” employees feel about things.

The Calendar of Events shows competitions taking place almost every weekend – how exactly are those staffed and handled?

Adding to the confusion locally, a recently published piece in the County Journal, a local weekly paper that serves the Sparta area tells us,

“The public will have a chance to get back to trapshooting at the shooting complex in Sparta, thanks to help from the Friends of the World Shooting and Recreational Complex.
Starting March 30, trapshooting will be open to the public Thursdays from 4 to 7:30 p.m. on an open practice trap.
On Saturdays, the public can shoot from 10 to 2 at a trap in front of Gibson Guns. The cost will be $6 per round of 25 shots, payable at the Event Center Great Outdoor Store on Thursdays and at Gibson Guns Saturdays.
“We will start opening things up more and more to the public,” said Brian Reid of the Friends of the WSRC. “We have to keep it moving.”

The trap league has also started up and teams can still sign up, and substitute shooters are welcome.
To get involved, people can show up Thursdays at 4 to sign up. There are 21 teams signed up so far.
Reid said the Friends of the WSRC plan to begin publishing league scores in the newspaper, as well as high and low shooters.”

But wait – doesn’t the web site say all shoot disciplines are by event only?

This of course leads to multiple question as to how the WSRC is staffed during these open to the public hours, and what exactly is the role of the Friends of the WSRC. It also leads to questions regarding how the fees are collected, are they forwarded to IDNR? Are monies collected kept by the Friends of the WSRC? How is it that the Friends of the WSRC appear to be so solidly entrenched, that at this point they can make public statements about opening more of the facility to the public when DNR offers up zero answers to anything we ask?

It’s really pretty simple. The WSRC is funded by our tax dollars, there’s absolutely no need for such secrecy or lack of available information. Just tell us what’s happening there. Just tell us what the “new management plan” contains.  Just tell us how the recent reduction in the headcount to 1 is really saving the taxpayers money. After all isn’t that why the headcount was reduced so drastically?  Just be transparent and open about the spending at the complex. Be transparent about how IDNR plans to move forward with WSRC.

During a House appropriations committee meeting on April 5th of this year Director Rosenthal indicated that the WSRC was in the process of hiring two additional shooting sports managers and was in the process of taking bids from contractors for grounds and facility maintenance, HVAC, and plumbing.  Sadly, I couldn’t find any of those RFP’s anywhere during any searches of IL procurement records, open solicitations, etc.  While those were said to be in process, a meeting at was being held at the WSRC that very same day regarding the contract and bid process and a walk through for certain activities – but again, no word was released about any of it.

I was able to note during the drive through that there was some mowing going on – hmm that must surely mean the grounds maintenance contract had been awarded.  A phone call to the complex about those very contracts simply ended up referring me to DNR Procurements and ultimately being told to send a FOIA request for the information. These are contracts funded by tax dollars. There is no good reason why anyone should not be able to look them up in the contract listings and awards on either the IDNR web site or the IllinoisBid website.  Again, why the secrecy? At other DNR sites when I have asked about say the Farm Lease or Concessionaire contracts for instance, the offices have always been able to quickly and easily provide me a copy for inspection. Why is this different at the WSRC?
There are just too many questions that no one seems willing to answer about the status of the shooting complex, and local rumor mills continue to run rife with tales. The most common complaint heard locally is that the WSRC has evolved into a bit of private club, and if you know the right person, belong to the right club, there’s plenty available and open.  The sad part is, the public just can’t figure out how to do anything or utilize anything there.

If IDNR really wants to see the facility thrive, live up to it’s potential, and be used by all taxpayers and members of the public, a better PR plan and working relationship with outdoor and local media would certainly help. Making things easier for visitors to find information, staff, and have questions answered, would also help.

It would go a long way to restoring some of the good will and trust in DNR and the overall management of WSRC if they would just talk to us. Just tell us how the money is being spent, how things are working at the complex these days, and what we can anticipate in the future.

The FY 2018 Proposed Budget Book shows $3,208,400.00 proposed for expenses for the WSRC and an additional 3.6 million labeled as Debt Service and Associated Permanent Improvements. With that kind of money involved, we should be able to have a pretty clear picture of how it is being managed and operated.  Interestingly enough, I’m not seeing a huge change from previous years in the proposed expenditure amounts, no really noticeable savings – you know those savings to taxpayers that were given as the reason for the closure and lay off of the staff.

Again – just talk to us. Just tell us what the real story is. Tell us what’s open, what’s closed, how to reach a staff person if there is an issue. Tell us what lies ahead for the WSRC.  The facility has the potential to be a great multi use campus, that serves a variety of outdoor enthusiasts not just the shooting sports, but not if no one has the first inkling of how to use it.

 

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What to Do if You Harvest an Alligator Gar in IL

Mon, May 22, 2017

There’s much ado about alligator gar in Illinois these days due to the recent release of the Alligator Gar Reintroduction Management Plan. Sadly much of that ado centers around the persistent myth that Illinois waters are level full of alligator gar already. This stems from the fact that many anglers and the public tend to consider or call all gar species “alligator gar”.

The most commonly seen gar in Illinois waters are the Longnose, Shortnose, and Spotted Gar. It’s important to know the differences, and to be able to accurately identify each species.

The images shown below from USFWS are an excellent tool to use when determining which type of gar you have in hand. An additional quick method when in the field is to look for the second row of teeth in the upper jaw. While some shortnose gar will occasionally also display a second row of teeth, it’s generally unusual enough that the second row of teeth is good indicator of an alligator gar.


Although alligator gar remain few and far between it’s still possible that anglers can encounter one.  IDNR has provided us with some tips and instructions should you be one of the lucky anglers to encounter an alligator gar.

First and foremost - take great care to insure that you have properly identified the fish as an alligator gar. Use the images above, look for the extra row of teeth. If your smart phone is handy, do a quick online search for images and identification tips.  Once you are certain you indeed have an alligator gar here’s a handy guide:

What to Do If You Harvest an Alligator Gar:
Notify your regional fisheries biologist of your catch/harvest. Directions for contacting the IDNR regional Biologists can be found on I Fish Illinois web site (http://www.ifishillinois.org) in the How Do I section under Contact My District Biologist. Alternately, contact Rob Hilsabeck at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or (309) 370-5296.  Per IDNR Biologist Rob Hilsabeck, “If the fish is kept, IDNR fisheries would like to scan the fish for a potential internal PIT tag, and take the front pectoral fin ray for age analysis.”

If the fish can be safely released alive:
Measure length, girth, and obtain weight. Note location where harvested, using gps if possible.
Take Photographs:
Side view, top view, view of the mouth open showing the two rows of upper teeth.
Also include photos of the tape measure with the fish as well when possible.
Take care not to overly stress the fish during the process.

If the fish cannot be returned to the water to survive:
Follow the same procedure as above, including photographs and measurements, but also place fish in a freezer so that IDNR fisheries staff can scan the fish for a PIT tag, examine the fish and take any needed samples.

It’s an exciting time for alligator gar in Illinois right now, and all anglers can help contribute to restoration and understanding of these wonderful prehistoric native fish by notifying IDNR if they encounter an alligator gar.

 

 

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House Bill 3750 Proposes Free Licenses for Law Enforcement

Fri, April 21, 2017

 

HB 3750 introduced recently by Rep. Katie Stuart (D) of the 112th district amends the Fish and Aquatic Life Code and the Wildlife Code and provides that the respective fees for resident fishing, combination sportsmen, and hunting licenses are waived for current and retired State, municipal, and local law enforcement officers.

What’s to argue with there? It shows strong support for our law enforcement officers, both current and retired. It’s an action and a piece of legislation that feels all warm and fuzzy. It feels good. In an era when law enforcement seems to be constantly coming under the gun from a multitude of directions, it certainly sends the message that someone cares about them. It’s not a surprise that the bill passed out of committee in late March. On the surface it seems like a great andgenerous thing to do.

BUT – and it’s a big BUT – what’s the fiscal implication of this feel good, warm and fuzzy piece of proposed legislation.

At a time when DNR is facing so many budgetary constraints, does it really make sense to pull more from that very budget?
It really does not seem prudent to even consider this potential loss of funds – as evidenced by the fiscal note filed by DNR.

“Loss of both license sale revenue (hunting/fishing) and federal reimbursement funding totals approximately $96,095 annually. This estimate does not include the annual impact by retired officers. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Fisheries divisions DO NOT receive General Revenue Funds from the State of Illinois. Revenue for conservation work, aquatic habitat enhancement, fish stocking and research is generated by the sale of licenses, stamps, permits and other fees. Eroding the pool of funds available by making hunting and fishing privileges free to certain classes of hunters and anglers would continue to reduce the Department’s capacity .”

The additional Balanced Budget Note filed by the OMB goes into even more detail about the financial implications.

“In total, estimated revenue to the state would be reduced by more than $100,000 annually if House Bill 3750 were to become law due to less revenues in hunting and fishing license sales and federal reimbursement. According to the Department of Natural Resources, the loss of hunting license revenue for active police officers is estimated at $37,000 annually. This includes an estimated $12,000 directly from license revenue, plus $25,000 in federal apportionment funding. Additionally, the Department of Natural Resources estimates the loss of fishing license revenue for active police officers to be $59,095 annually. This includes an estimated $33,450 due to the loss in license revenues plus $25,645 in lost federal apportionment funds. Based on active police officers, the estimated loss in revenue would be $96,095. House Bill 3750 includes waivers for both active and retired officers, however at this time the fiscal impact can only be estimated for active law enforcement officers. As such, the fiscal impact of House Bill 3750 is likely to be greater than the above estimates due to the non-inclusion of retired law enforcement officers in the estimates. According to the Department of Natural Resources, conservation work, aquatic habitat enhancement, fish stocking, and research is funded by the sale of licenses, stamps, permits and other fees. Reducing the pool of funds available by making hunting and fishing privileges free to certain classes of hunters and anglers would reduce the capacity of the Department of Natural Resources to fund these duties and if continued could require reductions in service or general funds to support these functions.”


I get that in the grand scheme of the entire financial mess that is our current reality, these seem like pretty insignificant dollar amounts. After all, what’s a mere 100,000 dollars give or take when DNR has an 800 million maintenance backlog and there are state parks that have ZERO assigned staff?
It may seem insignificant, but those dollars do indeed count. In this fiscal climate EVERY penny counts. Every single penny.

The next issue with this piece of legislation is the precedent it sets – Essentially a certain user group or class of sportsmen is given free privileges.  That opens the door for additional classes or user groups to also seek a waiver of fees. How do we effectively decide who is and isn’t worthy of hunting and fishing for free?

As much as I support the members of our law enforcement ranks, I just can’t get behind this bill. Not when it threatens the financial status of our already cash strapped and struggling DNR.  Heck, even though I don’t HAVE to buy my licenses because I hold a P2 card, I still do, just to contribute to the cause.

It will be interesting to see how this bill progresses or if it the fiscal issues associated with it cause it to die on the vine.

What say you Heartland friends and readers? Is a show of support for our law enforcement officers worth the loss to the DNR coffers?

 

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