Stocking of fish to drop amid DNR struggles

Fishing clubs and organizations have stepped in to assist DNR where they can. Many of the state’s muskie clubs have provided manpower, materials, equipment and, of course, money for needed projects.

Springfield —  A dozen or so years ago, DNR would begin the new calendar with a playbook as thick as a phone book detailing how and where the agency would stock 70 million bass, bluegills, crappies, catfish, muskies, pike and walleyes.

In 2017, that playbook is closer to the size of a steakhouse menu or a church bulletin.

If all goes well, biologists and technicians will release between 11 million and 12 million fish into the state’s lakes and rivers this year – a significant decline from the 20.9 million stocked in 2016 and light years from the 79.5 million fish stocked 15 years ago in 2002.

Frankly, Dan Stephenson feels fortunate to be able to be able to crank out the proposed 11.7 million fish. Staffing at state hatcheries is at all-time lows, facilities are in need up upgrades and putting together a stocking crew isn’t the luxury it was when the Division of Fisheries had a full staff of almost 150.

Illinois has stopped stocking northern pike and hybrid striped bass. The decision was based on priorities and the need to become more efficient with staffing in the hatchery system.

“We’re in a situation where manpower is an issue, it has been an issue for a few years now, but the people we have just keep plugging along and getting work done,’’ Stephenson, DNR’s fisheries chief, said.

Stephenson was almost giddy in early February when he learned he could post two new positions. But within seconds reality checked back in.

“I need 40 or 50 people and I need them yesterday,” Stephenson said. “More important, I have to think ahead, years down the road and what Fisheries will need then. Right now we are at 58 people, not counting the nine on the Asian carp crew. Not too may years ago we had 146. If I was allowed to hire 40, putting us at a good spot at 108, many of those positions would be filled internally with promotions and transfers. But I then need to backfill. If I can’t backfill, we gain nothing. I know we’ll never get back to 146 but I need to get to at least 105 or 110 and locate them strategically.”

Several retirements have hit Fisheries the past two years. Two more staffers have already left in 2017 – one retired and one took another job. Several of the remaining staff are closing in on retirement age.

On the bright side, a few retirees have agreed to help out on a contract basis, offering to pitch in during busy times and on special projects. It’s a short-term fix, but Stephenson will take  it.

Fewer hands, same amount of water

To help the state’s anglers better understand Fisheries’ staffing crunch, Stephenson suggests one draw a line from Rockford to Carbondale.

“The 50 or so counties on the west side of that line have four biologists and two fish technicians,” he said. “That’s a lot of bodies of water and a lot of people. Remember, biologists work with people a lot more than they work with fish.”

As for the fish hatcheries, the Jake Wolf facility is deteriorating and in need of improvements. Jake Wolf is down to a staff of  seven –  at its prime production level, it had about 25 workers. By this time next year, it will be down to three.

To help get through the current fiscal crisis – partly blamed on the fact that the state hasn’t had a budget in nearly two years – Stephenson pulled $1.5 million in federal Dingell/Johnson funding from research agencies, including the Illinois Natural History Survey, Southern Illinois University, Eastern Illinois University and Western Illinois University. He will use the money to hire people. The process to add 12 to 15 staffers will begin in July, as part of Fiscal Year 2018.

“Obviously we are not doing a nearly as much as we used to when we had near full staffing,” Stephenson said. All this isn’t even including the rivers and streams work. We are down from 14 rivers-streams biologists to six.”

Anglers doing what they can to help

Fishing clubs and organizations have stepped in to assist DNR where they can. Many of the state’s muskie clubs have provided manpower, materials, equipment and, of course, money for needed projects.

One example: The Fox River Valley chapter of Muskies Inc. paid for specialized food for young muskies at Jake Wolf last year. Another example was member clubs of the Illini Muskies Alliance getting together to donate about $6,000 for a new fish stocking trailer for DNR. The groups were also able to pony up to pay for a new educational trailer, which is used by DNR to attract new anglers.

In March,  Chicagoland Muskie Hunters will send a couple dozen members to Busse Lake for a cleanup day. Also in March the same club will send volunteers to Jake Wolf to help DNR with a very labor intensive portion of the fish-rearing process.

“At our meetings we talk about DNR’s needs and the ‘wish list’ they have, but we also take into account  the priorities of our membership and we figure out how we can best help,” said Kevin Butts, fisheries chairperson for the Chicagoland Muskie Hunters. “We are fishermen and we benefit from many of DNR’s projects. We also realize that in times like these, when things are tight, priorities are important.”

DNR’s wish list has grown in recent years.

“I can’t really say enough of the help the Illini Muskies Alliance and those muskie clubs have provided,” said Stephenson.

Asked about goals for 2017, Stephenson was quick to make a list:

•  With the restricted hatchery staff, the goal is to raise 11.7 million fish for stocking into the state waters.

• DNR plans to raise and release alligator gars again this year, but won’t be able to raise them in the state hatcheries.  “Fortunately we have a couple of cooperating private hatcheries,” Stephenson said.

• Fisheries will continue to serve private pond owners in an advisory role. Fisheries gave up the private pond stocking program four years ago due to manpower issues.

• A partnership with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will go on. “We have had a long-standing cooperative program with the IEPA to monitor the fish populations, benthic populations, vegetation and  all kinds of stream metrics in the wadeable streams in the state,” Stephenson said.

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