There is a lot wrong with the current state of affairs in Illinois. That’s nothing new. Hit hardest by budget cuts in recent years has been the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Those budget cuts have continued to a critical mass for IDNR’s programs, facilities and sites, its staff and – most importantly – the Illinois Conservation Police.
I am a contributing writer to Illinois Outdoor News. Last month one of ION’s readers wrote a letter to the editor to say that he had noticed that the news has been full of celebrity hunters getting passes when it comes to infractions of the law and the wildlife code.
With the prominence of the Jeff Foiles case, I think there will be a renewed scrutiny when it comes to celebrity hunters and anglers who think they are above the law.
Often the game wardens have made good cases but they don’t have prosecutors who support them. Often the cases are pleaded down to lesser charges or dismissed. Some prosecutors and judges don’t see these crimes as being that important in relation to other crimes. Some are just over worked. Some are up for re-election.
I know of one outlaw who has been in the sights of the conservation police for a long time. Due to family ties and such, he gets his hands slapped and is turned back loose in his community. And his crimes continue to get worse. Now, after a particularly blatant – and dangerous – incident a couple of months ago that caught the media’s attention, the guy was put behind bars.
The letter writer in Illinois Outdoor News asked, “Is it fewer CPOs in the field, no state money…?” The answer is yes.
Not including the command staff, there are 116 conservation police officers in Illinois. One can compare our game wardens’ ranks to nearby states. Indiana, a state smaller in size than Illinois, has 214 conservation officers. Missouri’s ranks are structured a little differently. The state has 145 game wardens and 83 water patrol officers.
Illinois’ CPOs are full-fledged police officers and serve as both game wardens and patrol the state’s rivers, lakes and streams. Because of their unique training, skills and knowledge, they are often called on by other law-enforcement agencies to assist in their investigations.
So, that’s 116 officers to cover 102 counties (over 55,000 square miles) in a state that is bordered entirely on its west by the Mississippi River and includes Lake Michigan shoreline, and other important rivers – the Ohio, Illinois and Wabash – and recreational lakes throughout the state.
The budget that Gov. Pat Quinn submitted to the General Assembly cut all funding for a new class of CPOs. And now that the budget is being debated, more funds have been slashed from DNR’s budget.
Cutting money for an academy class has come at a critical time for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Law Enforcement. As a class is graduated, eventually most of that class will be ready for retirement at the same time. And that is the case this year. Not only are the CPOs understaffed, they will be losing several officers to retirement. And there won’t be a class to replace them.
Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller praised the CPOs in an exclusive interview with me last December. He said then that he is concerned about the low numbers of CPOs and the impending retirements and had hoped for the funding for an academy class. Miller said that he was also looking for other ways to try to increase their ranks while maintaining professionalism because it takes 18 months to train a class of recruits.
Now that the budget is under debate, Miller finds his agency under more cuts and jeopardizing many divisions in the department. In an e-mailed budget message that Miller put out on March 15, he outlined how the deep cuts in DNR’s budget and staffing through the years have affected his entire department and emphasized the need to stop the bleed of funds from DNR.
CPOs were part of his plea: “Conservation Police, with full police powers and statewide jurisdiction, invest 160,000 man-hours annually protecting Illinois citizens annually, many in underserved areas.” Miller pointed out that lack of funding will have “severe implications for public safety: reducing frontline protection for park visitors, emergency/disaster response, hunting and fishing compliance, and natural resource protection.”
The outlaws are taking advantage of this, and they are getting bolder.
But what is the solution? In an effort to fund DNR programs and sites, legislation has been proposed to start charging parking and use fees for recreation areas throughout the state. Who will be asked to enforce them? The CPOs. These highly trained law-enforcement officers have better things to do than to become glorified meter maids at our state parks.
I applaud the letter writer in Illinois Outdoor News and others for wanting to help the CPOs – because they need help.
First of all, if you know about violations, call your local sheriff’s office and ask for a game warden.
However, the best thing that you can do right now, in my opinion, is to write to your state representative or senator and ask them to increase DNR’s budget – including funding for a class of CPO recruits.
Sources: Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Outdoor Wire, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri Water Patrol