Counting your prairie chicken eggs before they've hatched

Phone call determines money spent on wild chickens is well-spent

  • Pin It

Fewer than 100 Illinois greater prairie chickens remain. Males practice their rite of spring in a restored grassland some 200 miles south of Chicago. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

The old-time reporters at the City Hall press room had a running joke years ago: Too many phone calls can ruin a good story.

Even a wild goose story, or in this case, a wild chicken story.

And what a story it was, with reports of $520,000 in state and tax dollars being wasted on a few stupid birds.

With so many people wanting to leave Illinois, and a recent poll showing absolute loathing of our state's government and corruption, I figured any minute there would be a cartoon of Gov. Patrick Quinn with wild egg all over his face.

Prairie chicken eggs, actually, since greater prairie chickens are the creatures being captured live in Kansas and shipped by special costly flights to Illinois, where they're released at the Prairie Ridge State Natural Area downstate.

"It started with an anonymous letter I received," state Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, told me over the phone. "The letter was about waste in government, asking why the state needed a fleet of airplanes, five planes and two helicopters."

That's one of Mitchell's issues, and it's a good one, involving the state Department of Transportation.

"I can see one plane, if the governor has an emergency and has to get from Chicago to Cairo," Mitchell said. "But a whole fleet? Please. That's millions of dollars. The government shouldn't be arrogant about how they spend the taxpayers' money."

So where do the chickens come in?

"Down at the bottom of the letter," Mitchell said. "There were a couple sentences about the chickens. That's what started it."

So Mitchell started asking around during the budget hearings about the airplane fleet and the chickens and the Democrats got nervous and he didn't get any answers.

He got peeved, and a wire service reporter saw the anonymous letter, and within a day or so, the great Wild Bird vs. Beleaguered Taxpayer saga took flight.

"They shipped less than 100 birds," Mitchell said. "What did it cost, $1,000 per bird? One of my assistants called the U.S. Postal Service and they could ship them for $35 per bird. That's just plain crazy."

A state Department of Natural Resources official confirmed that the prairie chicken rescue is a three-year project, and it is indeed real.

The feds kicked in $337,500. The state kicked in $181,730. And the Illinois Audubon Society is to contribute $30,000, the DNR said.

There were 16 flights to Kansas and back this spring, at a cost of $7,363.91.

That's not quite the $55 million spent by Quinn for his controversial anti-violence initiative — the program dubbed a political "slush fund" by Republicans and being investigated by the feds.

Or other multimillions spent by Republicans in their own pig-in-the-trough years under Govs. Thompson, Edgar and Ryan.

But it sure seems stupid to spend all that money to fly greater prairie chickens to Illinois when you could just as well call the post office or throw them in a burlap sack and get in a truck.

So I was all set to sit down and have fun ripping government for wasting our money on some stupid chickens when I was gripped by the strange urge to make one last call.

  • Pin It