Working for the Illinois DNR comes with risks

Mike Conlin had a couple scary moments before retiring after 38 years

By JEFF LAMPE

OF THE PEORIA JOURNAL STAR at:  http://www.pjstar.com

Posted Aug 01, 2009 @ 11:27 PM

Last update Aug 03, 2009 @ 09:21 AM

Mike Conlin never figured he’d live long enough to retire after a 38-year career in conservation.

He almost didn’t.

“I do remember almost getting sucked in below the dam at Starved Rock one time and one time on the Mississippi River, too,” said Conlin, who started his tenure in state government as a fish biologist. “That time on the Mississippi, we had these big, long-handled wooden dipnets, and (fisheries biologist Ken Russell) and I were holding the ends of the nets against the dam face to hold our boat up.

“If we hadn’t had those nets, we would have gone down with the ship.”

As it was, the boat holding the biologists started taking on water. They had drifted into the dam when their motor conked out as they were sampling fish.

Fortunately, Conlin managed to start the motor and they cruised to safety.

That was 1973, as best Conlin can recall. Back then he was a biologist based out of Roanoke and Russell, who started in 1962 and is still on the job today, was already a veteran.

Two years later, Conlin became head of the fisheries department. For the past five years he ran the office of resource conservation, overseeing fisheries, wildlife, natural heritage and forestry.

And last Friday, Conlin retired from the Department of Natural Resources. As might be expected from a man who was never short on words while working, Conlin had plenty to say about the DNR as he prepared to leave Springfield.

“We’re down, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve been in a downward spiral for over 10 years, generally,” Conlin said. “I’ve never seen (DNR) this close to being dysfunctional in large areas.

“You can only take so much and then you reach that tipping point and it starts to break down.”

Field staff levels are too low, Conlin said, particularly in comparison to what he sees as a bloated executive branch. The forestry division and the office of land management are barely functioning, he said.

Not all is doom and gloom, though. Conlin said fishing opportunities are far superior compared to the 1970s. Anglers have more water to fish, more species to pursue and — unfortunately — less competition.

Read more* of Conlin’s opinions  online at Prairie State Outdoors:  http://www.prairiestateoutdoors.com

JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoors columnist. He can be reached at jlampe@pjstar.com or 686-3212

 *  See follow-up article from Prairie State Outdoors below

 

 A career DNR man speaks out

August 02, 2009 at 12:18 AM

BY JEFF LAMPE

Mike Conlin bio

Age: 65
Career: 38 years with Illinois Department of Conservation/Natural Resources — 2004 to present, head of the office of resource conservation; 1975-2004, head of fisheries, 1971-75, district fisheries biologist.
Hometown: Lives in Auburn, grew up on a farm near Arthur
Education: Earned bachelor’s and masters degrees at Eastern Illinois University.
Quotable: "Somebody said epoxy greases the wheel of progress in government and sometimes I think that’s true."

Mike Conlin never figured he’d live long enough to retire after a 38-year career in conservation.

He almost didn’t.

"I do remember almost getting sucked in below the dam at Starved Rock one time and one time on the Mississippi River, too," said Conlin, who started his tenure in state government as a fish biologist. "That time on the Mississippi, we had these big, long-handled wooden dipnets and (fisheries biologist Ken Russell) and I were holding the ends of the nets against the dam face to hold our boat up.

"If we hadn’t had those nets we would have gone down with the ship."

As it was, the boat holding the biologists started taking on water. They had drifted into the dam when their motor conked out as they were sampling fish.

Fortunately, Conlin managed to start the motor and they cruised to safety.

That was 1973, as best Conlin can recall. Back then he was a biologist based out of Roanoke and Russell, who started in 1962 and is still on the job today, was already a veteran.

Two years later Conlin became head of the fisheries department. For the past five years he ran the office of resource conservation, overseeing fisheries, wildlife, natural heritage and forestry.

And last Friday, Conlin retired from the Department of Natural Resources. As might be expected from a man who was never short on words while working, Conlin had plenty to say about the DNR as he prepared to leave Springfield.

"We’re down, there’s no doubt about it. We’ve been in a downward spiral for over 10 years generally," Conlin said. "I’ve never seen (DNR) this close to being dysfunctional in large areas.

"You can only take so much and then you reach that tipping point and it starts to break down."

Field staff levels are too low, Conlin said, particularly in comparison to what he sees as a bloated executive branch.
The forestry division and the office of land management are barely functioning, he said.

Not all is doom and gloom, though. Conlin said fishing opportunities are far superior compared to the 1970s. Anglers have more water to fish, more species to pursue and — unfortunately — less competition.

Here are more of Conlin’s opinions and recollections on a variety of subjects.

On deer ...


We do not have enough biologists working on deer management relative to the importance of whitetails said Conlin, who is pictured above discussing deer with a constituent at one of last fall’s task force meetings in Rushville.

Currently the DNR has two full-time and one part-time worker to handle deer, although program head Paul Shelton also oversees wild turkeys, squirrels and forest wildlife. Contrast that with Iowa, which Conlin said devotes four or five full-time people and four part-time people to deer management.

"Deer hunting is the cash cow for the department, but even with all the fee increases, that’s gone to other things. It certainly hasn’t gone to the deer program," he said.

Conlin said 11-12 years ago the fishing and hunting programs generated $10 million apiece from the sale of licenses and stamps. Today fishing contributes $9 million per year in revenue while hunting generates $23-$24 million.

"The difference is deer hunting," Conlin said. "And because of the jacked-up prices for deer permits, out-of-state (revenue) almost equals in-state. If our out-of-state clientelle fall off, we’re going to take a big hit."

On fishing ...

Some say fishing in Illinois was better in the "good old days." Don’t tell that to Conlin.

"We’re far superior now (compared to 1973) in terms of opportunities for the angler," he said.

For proof he cites the construction of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoirs, power plant cooling lakes, sub-division lakes and other small impoundments that put much more water on the landscape. And expansion of the hatchery system has allowed DNR to stock 30-35 million fish per year into those lakes.

While muskie and salmon are the poster-fish for Illinois’ fisheries expansion, Conlin points to the channel catfish (including the one he netted above at Lake Shelbyville) as yet another example of a species that is more plentiful today.

"Channel cats were darned near considered an exotic species when I came on," he said. "I just looked a memo the other day from Al Lopinot in 1962. He was talking about how they were no longer approved to stock channel catfish because they just didn’t reproduce and they were very difficult to catch and a lot of people didn’t like them anyway."

On DNR funding ...


Long-term, Conlin said DNR needs dedicated funding similar to the sales-tax percentage allotted to conservation in Missouri, Arkansas and now Minnesota.

"It took Minnesota 10 years to get there. Missouri worked from 1966 to 1976. The same with Arkansas when they got there in the 1980s. It takes groundwork and perseverance," Conlin said. "It doesn’t happen overnight. Long-term I see that as really critical."

Short-term Conlin advocates raising license fees and creating a parking fee to enter state parks.

"I think what (Director Marc Miller) is proposing in terms of fee increases is right on," Conlin said. "But you need to make a contract with the people and say, ‘This is what we want to do.’ You need to give specifics and then deliver on it."

On muskie ...

"Larry Ramsell called me when I was a district biologist and said he wanted to talk about stocking muskie. I remember we had a meeting in my basement and I told him, ‘I think it’s a great idea, we should try it at Spring Lake.’ It took two years and we finally got approval to put them in. And the rest is history.

"Who would think you could have 35 or 40 lakes around the state where you could catch a 40-inch muskie?"

On favorite places ...

Conlin started as a fish biologist in Roanoke and has always had a soft spot for the Mackinaw River, where he used to vacation with his family and where is pictured above holding a smallmouth bass.  "I fell in love with this river the first time I saw it," he said.

Topping the list of his other favorite places in Illinois are:

   · Vermilion River in LaSalle County: "Just in terms of its beauty and it’s the whitest water in the state.

   · Smithland Pool of the Ohio River: "Going up those creeks and winding up through there and bass and

     crappiefishing, it’s kind of like being far, far away from civilization."

   · Cache River: "I think it is a treasure."

   · Lake Michigan: "It’s still some of the best fishing you can possibly imagine in terms of trout and

     salmon—thought that kind of fishing is not what I grew up with and is not my favorite. It’s lost some of

     its pizazz but it’s still fantastic fishing."

On DNR staffing ...


"In some areas I’ve never seen it so bad," said Conlin, who is pictured above (left) with fisheries biologist Wayne Herndon in 1975 when both men still had lots of hair.

Conlin notes that the forestry division is crumbling.

"Forestry has 12 district foresters, not 22 like they had," he said. "Everybody is hurting across the board 40 percent or more, but forestry overall is probably hurting more than anybody else and that’s because their funding source is from the general revenue fund. The forestry fund has been swept so much that it’s virtually gone. So forestry is about as precarious as it gets because of that.

"Nurseries are 15-20 percent in terms of seedling capacity down the road."

Land management staffing levels are nearly as bad.

"They are at the point where if there’s additional cuts they’re going to have to close down a number of sites," he said. "And the fish hatcheries are still functional, but if we lose more people we’ll reach the tipping point where you don’t have the people to raise the fish and haul the fish."

Yet oddly enough, DNR executive staff has grown. Director Miller’s staff includes an assistant director, an assistant to the director and two deputy directors. Conlin said as many as 23 people attend executive meetings, a number he thinks should be cut to five.

"There’s no way a fat executive staff can live off a lean field staff," he said. "It’s ridiculous right now. There’s so much fat and you never see it cut at the top.
There’s no fat in this department when you take it as a whole, that’s for damn sure. But when you look at (the executive staff), that’s where you could make cuts and free up some critical field positions."

Conlin did say he thinks the hiring of John Rogner as assistant director is a good move. "He needed a right-hand person with that kind of background and I think he’ll do an excellent job."

On DNR fish hatcheries ...


"People don’t realize it, but our ‘new’ hatchery system is soon going to be 30 years old. Jake Wolf desperately needs an electrical overhaul. We are in real danger of losing everything there. It could happen tomorrow. There are infrastructure needs and they’ve all gone begging and they are things that need to be addressed."

"It’s because of that hatchery system we were able to really expand our horizon and to provide opportunities to anglers we didn’t even dream of and they didn’t even dream of for years before that. They didn’t even have good opportunities for bass or bluegill, let alone somewhere they could go catch sauger or muskie or hybrid striped bass or blue catfish."

On fisheries and wildlife management ...


"It’s pretty much of an infant science if you think about it. We’ve got about 50 years in terms of modern fisheries and wildlife management, so there’s a God awful lot we don’t know and we will learn. We shake our heads about things we thought were true 25 years or 35 years ago. And people will do the same down the road and say, ‘What a bunch of dummies.‘"

"On the wildlife side I remember Frosty Loomis talking about deer and the 12,000 to 15,000 kill level and saying, ‘That’s pretty much it. That’s about as far as the deer can expand in the habitat in Illinois.’ Who would have thought they were so adaptive? Same with Canada geese. And I can remember Jerry Garver saying that maybe in terms of counties, about 35 could have sustained a turkey population. Wrong. Or it takes 1,000 contiguous acres for a turkey flock to survive. Wrong."

"And these are fantastic success stories because of people with vision and dedication and passion who set the stage for this."

On his future ...

"I’m working on my hunting land. I’m taking up bowhunting," he said. "We’ve got 50 acres in Morgan County and the deer population there is really, really good."