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Forest districts targeting poachers
Officials on lookout for game hunters and collectors of rare plants and insects

Sunday, July 22, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Dan Gibbard | Tribune staff reporter

The two Florida bowhunters had heard about the abundance of deer in Cook County forest preserves, police recall, and came all the way up to bag their share last year.
Instead they ran into forest preserve police officers, who relieved them of the notion that hunting there was legal—and relieved them of their gear.

"They got a hefty fine and lost their equipment, which was expensive," said Richard Waszak, chief of the Forest Preserve Police Department.

But catching poachers is not always so easy. In county after county, forest preserve police and wildlife officials play a cat-and-mouse game with hunters, trappers and collectors of rare plants and insects.

"It can be, and has been, a very big problem ecologically," said Chris Merenowicz, assistant director of resource management for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. "Some of our plants and animals are rare and can't be replaced if they're taken out."

To protect their lands, officials seldom give out the locations of rare habitats. That has happened in recent years with the eastern massasauga, a rare rattlesnake that lives in just a few places in the area.

"We're very concerned about that," said Bruce Hodgdon, a spokesman for the Forest Preserve District of Will County. "When the press inquires about a rare plant, we do not give out locations of where these plants are."

Taking or moving anything wild is illegal in all of the area's forest preserves, officials say. And offenders come in all forms, from professional trappers to a guy picking wildflowers for his girlfriend.

Police, supported by Illinois Department of Natural Resources officers, can write warnings or issue citations, many of which require a court appearance and carry fines of from $25 to $500.

The severity of the problem varies by county, with some officials saying they don't have a major poaching problem. Hodgdon said the last case Will County officials could remember was a man trying to take some turtles, while a DuPage County preserve spokesman said police could not remember writing any poaching tickets.

But Cook County officials believe their problem may be getting worse. To combat it, the forest district police just finished a $500-per-person training program with the DNR, and now all 77 of its patrol officers are certified in conservation enforcement, Waszak said.

"Our officers have to be trained in it because it's becoming more and more of a problem," said the chief, who did not know how many of the thousands of citations officers write a year are for destruction of native wildlife, the ordinance violation for poaching.

Because the areas are so vast, police depend on tips from the public, which can be calls to 911 or e-mails or calls to the preserve offices, Waszak said.

Problems tend to be seasonal, Merenowicz said.

"In the springtime, when things are first coming up and blooming, you get people who are looking for certain plants, and that's also when guys looking for frogs and turtles are more active," he said. "You get deer poaching in winter. In summer, people hunt snakes."

The animals often are sold in underground pet shops, he said.

Among plants, orchids have an almost mystical draw.

"Orchids are one of the primary targets we have," said Jim Anderson, natural resource manager for the Lake County Forest Preserve District. But, he said, "Digging an orchid from its natural habitat, it's going to kill it 99 percent of the time."

Morel mushrooms, which can fetch $15 an ounce, are also attractive.

"That's difficult for us to manage," Anderson said. "We have 25,000 acres. What's going to stop someone from walking through the woods picking a morel? We try."

In the Cook County preserves, officers have caught workers dispatched from restaurants to gather wild onions, leeks and ginseng, Merenowicz said.

Even those who mean no harm can cause it, he said. Picking a plant can spread invasive species if the seeds are scattered in a preserve.

Also, plants have a genetic memory that allows them to adapt and thrive in a certain environment. So, eventually, if native species are allowed to thrive, they can be more widely distributed—and enjoyed.

"That's the bottom line with protecting these rare species, protecting that gene pool so that . . . hopefully in the future people can walk along trails and see these things," Anderson said. "[That would mean] they've moved from being rare to being more common."

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