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Cook County Steps Up Hunt for Poachers
Area's Vast Forests Offer Deer, Cover Aplenty for Stealthy, Illegal Hunters

Monday, January 05, 2004
Daily Southtown
by Mark J. Konkol

Suburban forest preserves flush with whitetail deer are off-limits to hunters, but poachers still lurk there - hiding in tree stands and makeshift cabins deep in the woods.

Cook County Forest Preserve police have zeroed in on several poaching posts, including three in the Palos Township area, waiting to catch clandestine hunters making illegal kills.

Most forest preserve poachers are "professionals" who work in stealth, often with partners, according to forest preserve Police Chief Richard Waszak.

"They're trying to be covert. There's usually more than one of them. One (poacher) gets dropped off on the side of the road to do the hunting. When he makes a kill, he calls or uses a two-way radio to get picked up," Waszak said.

"These are professional hunters either looking for the (deer antler) rack, which is very expensive, or the meat. These aren't guys going hunting for the first time looking for deer. They know the law."

Hunting and trapping is illegal in the 68,000 acres of forest preserve and open land in the Chicago area.

The hunting ban was enacted after World War I to preserve natural habitat and wildlife. As suburban sprawl set in, the hunting ban took on the dual purpose of protecting neighborhoods adjacent to the public woods.

Forest preserve wildlife biologist Chris Anchor spends some of his time stalking the county acreage, finding evidence of poaching in remote sections of the woods.

"Areas generally poached the heaviest are in areas least accessible to the public, areas that back up to private property in more secluded areas, farthest away from roads. Occasionally, you'll see deer stands, bait piles or gut piles where a deer has been eviscerated," Anchor said.

"In the fall, you start to see deer poaching, and if fur prices are up, you'll see trapping. In the summer, they poach fish and turtles, reptiles and amphibians to sell in the pet trade. When we see evidence of poaching, we contact law enforcement."

On one of his walks through the woods, Southtown outdoors columnist Duke O'Malley found a giant hunting cabin built with 30-foot logs and a tree stand 15 feet in the air in a preserve near Willow Springs.

"In the summertime, they're hard to find, but when the leaves are on the ground you can spot them easy from a little path," he said.

Many poachers are bow hunters, police said, making it harder for them to be discovered. Bows and arrows allow poachers to hunt in silence, without the sound of a gunshot to give them away.

Ron McCormick of Chicago Bow Hunters Archer Club in Bolingbrook said his club makes a practice of reporting poachers so honest hunters and target shooters don't get a bad image.

"First off, it's illegal, and we're protecting our own interest. We don't want to see anyone accidentally shot or have a housewife have to see a deer with an arrow in its butt running through her back yard," he said.

Between February and October 2003, forest preserve police issued 352 citations for "conservation offenses," including illegal hunting, fishing and destroying the landscape, officials said. Another 26 people were cited for illegal duck hunting, Waszak said.

During that period, police issued three hunting citations, but that doesn't mean they didn't catch any poachers.

"We've arrested a few people with dead deer, and there are charges for killing a dear. But we can't charge them with illegal hunting unless there's a dead deer. If we catch them with a gun, we get them on (unlawful use of a weapon) instead," Waszak said.

"When we come across deer stands or someone calls to tell us about one, we put surveillance on it. If we catch a subject with a deer stand and a bow, it's obvious he's hunting. We charge him with whatever we can."

Sometimes that means turning a hunting case over to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources or federal authorities, in the case of hunters shooting migratory birds. State and federal officials can levy higher poaching fines than the county's ordinance, which limits fines to a maximum of $500 for illegal hunting.

The heavy snowfall on Sunday will make it easier to track deer, and authorities are expecting more poachers to descend on the forest preserves. Waszak plans to dispatch more officers to stake out known poaching spots.

"(Poachers) look at an area like Palos Township, that is two-thirds forest preserve, and see a vast wooded area to hunt and go there rather than traveling downstate where you can legally hunt deer," he said.

"We want the message to be clear: Hunting is not condoned in the forest preserves. There is no deer season. No duck season. No hunting, period."

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